Montauk fisherman Christopher Winkler, left, confers with his lawyer, Peter...

Montauk fisherman Christopher Winkler, left, confers with his lawyer, Peter Smith of Northport, outside U.S. District Court in Central Islip on Sept. 14. Credit: Newsday/Mark Harrington

A commercial fisherman from Montauk was found guilty of all five counts against him in federal court in Central Islip Wednesday in a case that alleged a conspiracy among fishermen and fish dealers to catch and sell more than 200,000 pounds of fish over the legal limits.

Christopher Winkler, 63, captain of the commercial fishing trawler New Age, was found guilty by a federal jury in Central Islip of one count of conspiracy, two counts of mail fraud and two counts of obstruction of justice for filing false fishing reports. He faces up to 20 years in prison. 

In a statement issued after the verdict, lawyers for Winkler, Richard Levitt and Peter Smith, said that while they "respect the jury system," "The principal culprits here, however, are the antiquated fish landing quotas, particularly those for fluke that haven’t changed in some 30 years, which cheat New York fishermen out of their livelihoods, even as New York’s fluke population has been increasing."

They said a decision hasn't yet been made on whether Winkler will appeal the ruling. He remains free on bail and a date has not yet been set for sentencing. 

In a statement, Todd Kim, assistant U.S. Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said fishing quotas are “designed to prevent overfishing and stabilize populations for the public good. We will continue to seek justice against those who flout laws that protect fisheries and the fishing industry.”

The verdict follows three weeks of testimony and boxes of paper records that the government said proved a multiyear conspiracy in which Winkler is alleged to have supplied over-the-limit fish to dealers, including Gosman’s fish dock in Montauk, and two others that operated out of the New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx.

Two members of the Gosman family, Asa and Bryan Gosman, who are cousins, pleaded guilty in 2021 to a single count of mail fraud, and cooperated in the government’s investigation. Bryan Gosman admitted acting as a lookout for Winkler, and the Gosmans said that other fishermen sold them “under-the-counter” fish that were also outside the limits.

Defense lawyers for Winkler sought to paint the government’s witnesses as untrustworthy, noting many, including the Gosmans, admitted drug and alcohol use, and one required two immunity agreements with the government because of inconsistencies in prior testimony.

During his summation, prosecutor Christopher Hale said that some of the witnesses brought before the jury were “scoundrels,” but added, "We take the witnesses as they come. It's not a beauty pageant.”

The case is the latest in more than a decadelong investigation by the Department of Justice and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into commercial fishing activities, primarily in the New York City and Long Island regions. The probe has netted more than a dozen guilty pleas, more than $1 million in fines and sent several men to prison. Only one has previously gone to trial, resulting in a hung jury that ultimately led to a deferred prosecution agreement and the dismissal of all charges.

New York fishermen have long complained of having among the lowest percentages of the quota for fluke, leading to a state lawsuit in an attempt to reset the quota from its current 7.6% and leaving fishermen with the dilemma of dumping tons of over-quota fish back into the water dead. These so-called regulatory discards were part of the Winkler case, with regulators taking the stand to acknowledge that while fishermen can get penalized for failing to fill out critical sections of the form, most never log and report their discards, which can be large.

Prosecutors allege Winkler landed more than 200,000 pounds of illegal fluke and black sea bass between 2014 and early 2017, with records that alleged he sold sometimes thousands of pounds a day when the quota was sharply lower or even closed to commercial fishing. In summations last week they said the value of the unreported fish totaled $736,074. 

Winkler's lawyers, in their statement, contended that if their client had "caught and landed the same fish in New Jersey, where the landing limits inexplicably are often as much as 10 times those in New York, there likely would not have been a prosecution. As it is, New York fishermen, if they catch above their trip limits, are supposed to throw the fish back into the water, even though these fish are dead and therefore wasted."

They concluded, "There is nothing at all rational about this system, but Mr. Winkler and other Long Island fishermen are easy scapegoats for this regulatory insanity."

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What LIers think of hot-button issues … Shirley ice rink … What's up on LI? Credit: Newsday

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