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Dozens pack courtroom in support of East End fishermen

Two dozen East End fishermen and their families packed an East Hampton courtroom Thursday in support of two men charged with harvesting fluke and porgies without permits and out of season.

The men, brothers Daniel and Paul Lester of East Hampton, pleaded not guilty to numerous felony and misdemeanor charges Thursday. The brothers are sons of the late East Hampton fisherman Calvin Lester, who waged an unsuccessful battle against laws that ended a traditional type of commercial off-beach fishing of striped bass, known as haul seining, in the 1980s. Daniel Lester is an East Hampton harbormaster.

At a briefing after the arraignment yesterday morning, the men's lawyer, Daniel Rodgers of Riverhead, read a statement saying the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which brought the charges, was "attempting to regulate the commercial fishery into permanent foreclosure."

Rodgers charged the DEC has a "long history" of "harassing, browbeating and intimidation of local commercial fishermen," and added, "That is going to end."

He alleged the agency relies on "faulty and outdated" scientific data to set catch limits, and he asserted the DEC "lacks jurisdiction" over East Hampton fisheries. In a statement, the DEC suggested the fishermen's anger was misguided.

"We understand the concerns of the fishing industry and we share its concerns about the unfair federal quotas for some species," spokeswoman Maureen Wren said. "But it should be pointed out that DEC has led the fight for New Yorkers on this front. It would be in error to place the blame on DEC."

But Rodgers laid the blame squarely at the DEC's feet, and pointed to the abrupt end to Calvin Lester's career as a storied haul-seiner of striped bass.

Fishermen who showed up in support of the Lesters said regulations and enforcement are out of step and heavy-handed.

"The problem is, we in the fishing community are being made to pay a terrible price because of scientific uncertainty when these regulatory decisions are supposed to be made using the best available data," said Arnold Leo, secretary of the East End Baymen's Association, a fishermen's group.

He said the group plans to conduct an illegal haul of fish in the bay this spring to protest the rules. A chorus of lawmakers who attended a fishermen's rally in Washington last week vowed to change the rules. But environmentalists, marine scientists and regulators say the restrictions are working to rebuild fish stocks long depleted, and should not be weakened.

One fisherman who supported the Lesters said the laws are crippling their livelihood.

Jim Bennett, an East Hampton fisherman who attended the court appearance, said armed DEC enforcement officers "are always breathing down your neck" and "always out to get you."

"We have a right to go fishing in these waters," Bennett said. "They're trying to cut us out of an industry."

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