East End commercial fishing advocates gathered at an Amagansett fishing family’s home Thursday to demand a change to state law that allows enforcement officers the “unfettered” ability to seize and sell fish taken in enforcement actions.
The request follows years of charges by several East End fishermen that state enforcement officers seized fish then sold it without any procedure for those charged to reclaim their property once they were later acquitted.
Since the practice has come under criticism, the state has returned more than $10,000 to fishermen who were acquitted of charges. Among them were the Lester family, whose members in 2013 received a check for $202.25 for seized fish after they were acquitted of illegal fish possession.
“The problem with these seizures is there’s no forfeiture hearing, no hearing before a judge, there’s no nothing,” said Daniel Rodgers, a former assistant Suffolk prosecutor who is now a Cutchogue attorney representing several fishermen, including the Lesters.
The fishermen’s demand follows by seven months an investigation and report by the state Inspector General that found state Department of Environmental Conservation enforcement officers “lacked policies and procedures for the return of property” of fishermen who are charged and later acquitted.
Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) has introduced legislation to address the issue, but it failed to garner approval. The measure is expected to be reintroduced this year.
Rodgers said the current DEC practice constitutes a conflict of interest because proceeds from the sale of seized fish often works its way back to the agency’s enforcement budget. “It’s just rife with problems,” he said.
DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said while the agency can’t comment on pending legislation it “cooperated fully with the Inspector General’s investigation” and made “significant changes” to its operations prior to the report’s release.