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

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

The trial of Montauk fisherman Christopher Winkler kicked off last week with a portrayal of the storied fishing community as a land of haves and have nots, where members of the Gosman family exert control over vast fishing interests and Winkler was motivated by “greed.”

Testimony in the trial at federal court in Central Islip has opened a window into the movements of fish from Montauk to the Bronx, and sometimes illegally to other states to avoid New York’s comparatively low quota for fluke and other species.

Testimony has also opened a window on the large amount of netted fish that must be returned to the sea dead to stay within strict state limits that shift throughout the year.

Winkler, charged with mail and wire fraud and conspiracy counts, faces 20 years in prison if convicted of illegally overharvesting fluke and black sea bass on about 220 fishing trips between 2014 and 2016. He has pleaded not guilty. Newsday first reported on the case against Winkler and the Gosmans in 2021.

  • The trial of Montauk fisherman Christopher Winkler has kicked off in federal court on charges of illegally overharvesting fluke and black sea bass.
  • Winkler is charged with mail and wire fraud and conspiracy counts and faces 20 years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.
  • Testimony has opened a window on the vast amount of netted fish that must be returned to the sea dead to stay within strict state limits that shift throughout the year.

His former co-defendants, Asa and Bryan Gosman of Montauk reached plea agreements in 2022 and were portrayed in an opening statement by a defense attorney as cooperating witnesses in the government’s case against Winkler, the lone Montauk fishermen to face trial. The Gosmans are expected to testify in the trial in coming days. George Stamboulidis, a lawyer for the Gosmans, declined to comment.

The government alleges Winkler caught more than $850,000 worth of fluke and black sea bass during the three years covered in the indictment and conspired with local fish dealers, including the Gosmans, to underreport his catch. Mailing and electronically sending false reports, the government alleges, amount to mail and wire fraud, in addition to the conspiracy and other charges against him.

Prosecutor Kenneth Nelson told jurors Winkler was motivated by greed.

“Instead of following the rules and limits for how much fish you can catch, he decided they don’t apply and he’s going to catch as much fish as he wants,” Nelson said, according to a trial transcript. “Why? Because of greed.”

“It was not just him alone taking all these fish worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but was in a conspiracy with other people and other companies,” Nelson said.

Winkler’s lawyers at the trial thus far have described their client as person at the bottom of the Montauk food chain, while others, including the Gosmans, allegedly playing a bigger role but pleaded guilty to lesser crimes.

“The Gosmans were (originally) indicted for crimes that carry sentences of 20 years,” defense attorney Richard Levitt told jurors, according to a trial transcript. “Well, the Gosmans are very significant people out here on Long Island.”

“The Gosmans are up here, Chris Winkler is down here,” Levitt said of his client, who has been fishing commercially for 45 years and works “all hours of the day and night … It is a dangerous job.”

Winkler is one of two commercial fishermen who took the government’s case against them to trial. Others in the more than decadelong investigation into commercial fishing in New York have reached plea agreements and received sentences of fines and prison time or, in some cases, both. Northport fisherman Tom Kokell ultimately saw charges against him dismissed after reaching a deferred prosecution agreement following a hung jury at trial.

With some daily trip limits as low as 70 pounds for fluke, fishermen are required to throw back all fluke over that limit, in many cases considerably more than they can land. Winkler’s lawyers said that forms fishermen are required to otherwise truthfully complete nearly always exclude any figure for these discards, potentially excluding vast amounts of fish from government population surveys.

“So, if a fisherman catches in his net a thousand pounds of fluke and he’s only allowed to take a hundred pounds, he’s required before he lands to discard 900 pounds of dead fluke?” Levitt asked David Gouveia, assistant regional administrator for analysis and program support for NOAA Fisheries.

“By regulation, yes, because there’s a possession limit,” Gouveia said.

“But you know, don’t you, that the discard column on the [vessel trip report] is almost never filled out by the fishermen, correct?” Levitt asked.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” he answered. “I have seen it filled out and I have seen it not filled out.”

A parade of more than 25 witnesses are expected to make their way into the three-week trial, including fishermen, fish-market dealers and fisheries regulators provided. Some colorful characters have already testified.

Daniel Fagan, a one-time crew member of Winkler’s, acknowledged in court that he was testifying under two grants of immunity. When asked by Nelson whether Winkler had ever brought overages of fish on board, Fagan answered, “God, quite frequently.” He also said he pushed boxed fish overboard when Winkler’s trawler, the New Age, was met by a Coast Guard boat.

Under questioning by Levitt, he acknowledged telling a grand jury that he didn’t know for sure whether Winkler’s fish reporting was accurate. Fagan has not been charged with any crimes relating to the government’s fishing probe.

Fagan said he’d also worked for the Gosmans, but more recently has been commercially fishing on his own. He testified that the amounts of illegal fish on board Winkler’s trawler varied from 100 to 500 pounds a day. He also acknowledged overharvesting fish some 50 times himself, including illegally overharvesting striped bass in 2021 and 2022 for his own operation, for which he’d received his first immunity agreement.

Fagan also discussed a transaction known as “shak fish” sales that involves selling fish for cash and splitting it with the crew, and he named three local markets to whom he sold it, skirting taxes and reporting. He also reported taking some 5,980 pounds of fish caught in New York waters and landing it in New Jersey, a violation of state law.

Roland G. Riopelle, an attorney for Fagan, declined to comment on Fagan’s testimony, which concluded last week.

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