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Man accused of illegally fishing for baby eels headed back to court

Former Shinnecock Indian tribal leader David Taobi Silva

Former Shinnecock Indian tribal leader David Taobi Silva stands on the dock on Heady Creek, in the Shinnecock Reservation, on Jan. 3, 2018. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

A former Shinnecock Indian Nation tribal leader charged last year with illegally fishing for baby eels was caught as part of a larger sting operation by state conservation police who were briefing the governor’s office but not tribal leaders, state records released during his trial show.

The first phase of David Taobi Silva’s trial for harvesting so-called glass eels took place Aug. 30 in Southampton Town Justice Court before Judge Gary Weber without an immediate conclusion, Silva said. 

Silva, a former Shinnecock trustee, faces tens of thousands of dollars in fines and up to 15 days in jail if found guilty on the charges, the documents indicate. He is due back in court for the remainder of his bench trial Oct. 25.

Silva, 43, was charged with possession of undersized and over limit eels and fishing without a commercial license, all misdemeanors.

Emails released during the trial show state Department of Environmental Conservation police had set up a sting operation in waters around the tribe’s Southampton reservation for weeks before Silva’s charge.

The emails show they used unmarked cars and operated in shifts to cover local creeks and rivers, and their efforts and details of Silva’s case were reported to the “executive chamber,” a reference to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office.

“They were targeting the Shinnecock nation,” said Silva, who has pleaded not guilty in the case.

Silva said he was surprised by the breadth of the DEC’s efforts.

“I was stunned by the resources they spent on me and my uncle fishing,” he said. “We weren’t hiding. We’d been doing this for a while before they got word through the grapevine we were fishing. If they’d have asked, I would have told them we were fishing.”

Silva has asserted he was exercising his historic tribal right to fish the waters around the Shinnecock reservation and miles beyond. He has filed a federal civil case against the DEC and Suffolk County district attorney to assert those fishing rights. 

Randy King, a Shinnecock tribal trustee, called the emails "deeply concerning." 

"The Shinnecock counsel of trustees is well aware of Mr. Silva’s case, and we now see it through the lens of how some officers of the state DEC view the Shinnecock Nation," said King, a former trustee chairman. "We are closely watching this."

The DEC declined to comment on the Silva case or its enforcement procedures.

But the agency said in a statement, “We do not single out any specific person or group through our enforcement actions.” Rather, the DEC said it enforces “prohibitions equally against anyone who is engaged in an illegal activity.”

In the case of American eels, "we conduct routine enforcement activities throughout the marine district, and respond to complaints to ensure people are not engaged in illegal harvesting of eels,” the DEC said.

“These eels are highly valued in Asian markets, which has placed increased pressure on this depleted species in New York and other states along the Eastern Seaboard, leading to increased illegal harvesting,” the statement said.

While the court documents show a monthslong effort to coordinate the sting and choreograph court dates and outcomes, few of the documents indicate why the DEC went to such lengths to target tribal fishing.

In an April 25, 2017, email, former DEC Capt. Dallas Bengal notes there are two “historically weak parts to successful prosecutions in Southampton: the DA’s office and Southampton Town Judges.” He suggests setting up a meeting with the DA’s office or going to the  state attorney general . “Can we get anyone above our pay grades to reach out to [then-Suffolk] DA Tom Spota?” Bengal asks.

He also said Southampton Town judges have “quite often ruled against us, usually when a case is involving Southampton Town resident commercial fishermen.”

The DEC in its statement suggested that notifying the governor’s office and reaching out to Spota were routine matters.

“As an executive branch agency of government, DEC staff routinely briefs the executive chamber of ongoing agency matters, including its enforcement efforts, and works with local district attorneys and other law enforcement professionals to bring poachers, smugglers and polluters to justice,” the agency said.  

 In another email that was sent to regional director Carrie Meek-Gallagher and marine resources chief Jim Gilmore, DEC attorney Monica Kreshik made a case against the tribe’s assertion of ancient fishing rights.

“The Shinnecock assert that they have a treaty right to exercise their aboriginal fishing practices. This may be true,” Kreshik wrote. “However, state law or regulation may impact an off-reservation treaty fishing right when it represents a reasonable and necessary conservation measure and does not discriminate against the Native American treaty-holders.”

Silva has argued in his civil rights case that his prosecution was discriminatory.

Kreshik concludes: “We should do everything possible to preserve a good working relationship with the Shinnecock. However, I believe we need to impress our position concerning eel.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave the wrong title for former Shinnecock Indian tribal leader David Taobi Silva.

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