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Point Lookout fish wholesalers get probation for buying illegally caught fluke

Two owners of a Point Lookout commercial fish wholesaler on Thursday received probation and were ordered to pay $58,000 each in restitution but avoided prison time following their guilty pleas to federal wire-fraud and filing false federal records charges.

Both faced more than 20 years in prison, and prosecutors had sought 13-month prison terms. The charges related to the two buying illegally harvested fluke.

Michael Mihale, 47, of Oceanside, and Bruce Larson Jr., 36, of Merrick, partners in Jones Inlet Seafood of Point Lookout, had previously pleaded guilty to two counts in connection with the purchase of 56,000 pounds of illegally harvested fluke valued at $116,000, prosecutors said.

"I am deeply sorry," Mihale told U.S. Federal Court Judge Sandra Feuerstein in Central Islip, in requesting she not impose a prison sentence.

"It was a decision I made and it was wrong and I apologize," Larson said.

Mihale received a year's probation and Larson three years'. Both lost their fish-dealer licenses and must pay $58,000 in restitution and other fees for filing 65 false fishing reports that understated the amount of legal fluke they had purchased.

The federal government also prosecuted their company, Jones Inlet Seafood, which was ordered to pay $120,000 in fines and restitution, and given five years' probation in which its records will be subjected to regular audits.

The charges stemmed from an ongoing federal investigation of a program known as research set-aside, which lets fishermen buy quota to harvest fish off season and above the legal limits, with the proceeds used to fund fisheries research. Prosecutors say the program has been used as a "license to steal" by some who underreport their catch in violation of federal rules. Two other New York men have served prison sentences stemming from the investigation.

Mihale and Larson were allowed to keep their commercial fishing licenses but lost their dealer licenses, and are banned from participating in the research set-aside program, among other restrictions.

"The economic consequences to them are pretty steep," said Larson's attorney, Joseph Conway.

In arguing for prison time for both men, federal prosecutor Christopher Hale in a sentencing document wrote: "Although the defendants did not personally haul the nets, they knew the fluke was illegal. In purchasing the illegal fluke and falsifying federal forms, Mihale and Larson Jr. enabled the illegal conduct at sea by providing a laundry for the illicit fish."

Craig Hayes, an attorney for Mihale, argued that prison time would have taken the men from their families and businesses, which he said were an integral part of the community. He noted that the charges Mihale pleaded guilty to weren't the result of "greed . . . but rather the survival of his company," which he noted had been impacted by superstorm Sandy, the economy and regulations.

New York commercial fishing vessels receive 7.6 percent of the federal fluke allotment, compared with Virginia and North Carolina, which each receive more than 20 percent.

Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department, said the government's probe into "abuses of the [research set-aside] program is ongoing."

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