After months of pressing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Commerce Department, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer announced today that NOAA has agreed to waive fines and provide restitution for numerous fishermen who were fined over the last several years by rogue fisheries enforcement agents in the Northeast Region. According to the Commerce Department$649,527 in fisheries enforcement penalties will be returned to 11 individuals or businesses after an independent review of their cases concluded the NOAA enforcement program had in some instances overstepped the bounds of propriety and fairness.
Aggers Fishing Company, one of several cases on whose behalf Schumer's office advocated, received restitution of $160,000 and had all ongoing payment obligations cancelled. Thomas Kokell, a LI fisherman, also had $30,000 in fines forgiven as a result of the initial review supported by Schumer. At a Montauk meeting with Administrator Lubchenco and the Long Island fishing community last summer, Schumer advocated directly on behalf of Agger and other fishermen who believed they were excessively fined.
"Today's announcement is a major victory in our effort to bring some vindication and justice to Long Island fishermen, who were victimized by overzealous fisheries enforcement agents who thought hardworking fishermen were their personal piggybank," said Schumer. "It was a long, hard battle, but well worth the fight."
A bombshell report issued by the Commerce Department's inspector general's office last summer revealed that, over the course of the last four years, forfeiture funds, obtained through fines levied against fishermen and through selling seized property, were improperly used to purchase vehicles, boats, and international travel for employees of the Northeast Region of the Marine Fisheries Agency. The Inspector General's report stated that regional offices of the Marine Fisheries Agency were acting autonomously and fines for the Northeast Region were way out of line and more than two times those levied in other regions throughout the country.
Schumer immediately called on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to begin selling off unauthorized purchases it made with Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) money and return the proceeds to the fund and fishermen who committed no wrong or were excessively fined. After initially denying the right to appeal for fishermen who were not originally screened during the IG investigation, Schumer, in October, pressed Secretary Locke to open a 45- day window for individuals who did not earlier submit their cases for review by NOAA's Special Master out of fear of reprisal. After initially denying rehearings, Commerce backtracked and granted Schumer's request in March of this year.
At Schumer's insistence, NOAA also committed to sending economic assistance teams to Montauk to meet with local fishermen and businesses to determine the best way going forward to repair damages done to the local economy. A team of Commerce Department and economic development professionals visited Montauk last week and will issue a report in the coming months to the Secretary and the local community.
"While this is a solid step by the agency to correct wrongs of the past, it's imperative that NOAA and Commerce begin to treat hardworking fishermen as critical pieces of the Long Island economy, and not a blank check for bureaucratic spending," said Schumer.