Montauk fisherman Christopher Winkler, left, with his lawyer Peter Smith at U.S. District...

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

The federal government is recommending that a Montauk fisherman convicted of a three-year conspiracy to illegally harvest fluke and black sea bass spend from 4 to 5 years in federal prison and pay more than $1.7 million in fines and other costs, according to court papers.

Lawyers for the fisherman, Christopher Winkler, are asking for 6 months of home confinement and 3 years of probation when he faces sentencing in July.

Winkler, 63, captain of commercial trawler New Age in Montauk, in October was convicted of five counts, including conspiracy, mail fraud and obstruction, following a multi-year probe of a scheme that spanned from Montauk to the New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. He faced a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Winkler and Asa and Bryan Gosman were initially charged in 2021 as part of the federal government’s decadelong investigation of the commercial fishing industry, saying they conspired to mislabel packing boxes, falsify fishing reports and sell fish well over the limits.

Only one prior case in the government's ongoing probe went to trial, and resulted in a hung jury with no prison time for the defendant, Tom Kokell, of Northport, who entered a nonprosecution agreement with the government. More than a dozen men have been charged, with most pleading guilty and at least three serving prison time.

Winkler’s lawyers — Peter Smith, of Northport, and Richard Levitt and Zach Segal, both of Manhattan — in their 31-page filing in March portrayed Winkler as a “quiet man from a working-class family” who built his first fishing boat and worked 12-plus-hour days six days a week.

Friends and relatives described him as a “quality person who respected his craft, his crew and even the fish he netted,” the filing states. They said his crime caused “no environmental damage,” because, as a government witness testified, fluke stocks have been rising. And they argued that Winkler was a victim of a federal fishing quota system “rigged against New York fishermen,” one in which fishermen from North Carolina can legally catch many times that of New York’s 7.6% of the fishery. Winkler, they said, “is a good person operating in a backwards industry.”

But federal prosecutors painted a considerably different picture, calling Winkler's conspiracy "extensive and systemic." Prosecutor Christopher Hale, a trial attorney for the Department of Justice’s environmental crimes unit, pointed to the 220,000 pounds of fish valued at nearly $900,000 he was convicted of overharvesting, saying tax documents showed he was “constructing a stylish home, featured in the local press, with the proceeds of his illegal fishing." 

In addition to requesting a sentence of 48 to 60 months in prison, prosecutors are also asking for 3 years of supervised release with a ban on fluke fishing and a surrender of his New York, Virginia and New Jersey fishing licenses, plus a fine up to $200,000, restitution of $750,000 and a forfeiture of $750,000.

Prosecutors cited Winkler’s use of Bryan Gosman, who pleaded guilty in the case and cooperated with the government, as a lookout to hide his crimes as evidence of his intent. 

And the government attacked Winkler’s claim that the fishing rules were unfair, noting that lawsuits have challenged the rules over 15 years, yet each time federal regulators “have prevailed.” And even if New York’s fishing allocation were arbitrarily low, prosecutors said it was not Winkler’s “choice to ignore the resulting trip limits.”

“Winker’s line of thinking is one of a purposeful lawbreaker, rather than principled civil disobedience,” prosecutors wrote. As for the state of the fluke fishery, they argued, regulators have “raised the issue that fluke stocks might not be as healthy as previously believed.”

Sentencing is scheduled for July 11 before Judge Joan M. Azrack in federal court in Central Islip.

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