Local commercial fishermen who have had grievances with the state Department of Environmental Conservation — including one Greenport boat captain who was reimbursed over $8,000 two years ago after having his catch taken from his boat in 2011 — may now have some relief thanks to New York’s Inspector General.
After an investigation that began more than three years ago, New York State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott released a report Wednesday noting various problems within the state DEC, including mismanagement of records and failure to reimburse fishermen who had their catches seized, though successfully beat the charges against them in court.
As a result, she said, the DEC adopted new policies in April 2014 to address its shortcomings.
“As a direct result of this investigation, DEC made restitution for catches that were seized but no wrongdoing was found; issued new evidence control policies; and ended the long-standing practice of their environmental law enforcement officers negotiating potential dispositions with the very defendants they accused of violating the law,” a press release from Ms. Leahy Scott’s office stated.
One of the main problems highlighted in the report dealt with restitutions. Ms. Leahy Scott’s investigation found DEC officers frequently seized catches when they suspected wrongdoing, such as a haul above the state limit or a lack of proper permits, per their common practice.
However, the department failed to reimburse fishermen who were acquitted of charges or won court cases until her investigation began.
“If a fisherman is acquitted or the case is dismissed, he or she is entitled to compensation equal to the value of the catch,” the release stated. “Nevertheless, DEC returned the proceeds only after this investigation had commenced.”
The investigation began at the request of local state assemblymen, who themselves were recounting complaints levied by fishermen from the East End. Among those mariners was Greenport’s Sid Smith, who had his catch seized The Merit in 2011 and was reimbursed more than $8,000 for the value of those fish in 2013.
Mr. Smith, who is currently splitting his time fishing between Rhode Island and Long Island, was happy to hear of the report’s release.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “Maybe it will do something about the way the permit system has been handled. That’s been pretty much the same since 1985 and they haven’t changed anything.”
Baymen held a rally in Hampton Bays in January of this year calling for the resignation of Department of Environmental Conservation Joe Martens. He later did, in July.
South Fork fishermen have had run-ins with the DEC over the years similar to Mr. Smith’s. In one instance, the East Hampton Star reported that a Montauk fisherman was reimbursed last week after a $1,000 take that the DEC took from his boat. The incident occurred 17 years ago. In another, Patch reported that an Amagansett family had their fish stand cleared by environmental conservation officers, who later sold the family’s catch to a local fish market. They were later reimbursed just over $200.
Although some interviewed in the IG’s investigation raised concerns that DEC officers conduct warrantless searches and seizures, Ms. Leahy Scott concluded they are permitted to do so under the Environmental Conservation Law — therefore, a change to this practice is only possible through legislation.
Assembly Fred Thiele proposed such legislation in April 2012, but it never came to a vote, according to the IG report.
Ms. Leahy Scott also found substantial problems in the way the DEC kept records. Fishermen are required to file reports detailing their catches, but according to the report, the DEC did not process those reports between 2008 and 2011 into a database.
The department twice received grants to hire a contractor to input that data, but never acted on them, Ms. Leahy Scott wrote.
The other major problem mentioned in the report dealt with plea deals: DEC officers themselves would often “pressure” accused fishermen into accepting plea deals of reduced charges rather than acting through an independent prosecutor.
“An accused defendant should have the opportunity to discuss and negotiate his or her case with an independent prosecutor, not the accusing officer,” Ms. Leahy Scott wrote in her report.
According to the report, the DEC has since taken a bevy of corrective action to prevent such problems from arising in the future by revising or clarifying policies.
However, Mr. Smith stressed the DEC’s permit process and its record-keeping are still areas that need improvement.
“They have failed to do their work going years back, and that explains why nothing has ever changed as far as how our quotas stay low or permits are handled,” he said. “They just failed to do their job. It makes you feel like state workers collect a check and go home.”