A Montauk fisherman faces prison over 200,000 pounds of fluke

It was just before dawn when Chris Winkler, a fisherman in Montauk, New York, set out on his fishing vessel, the New Era.

Mr. Winkler, a long-haired surfer who looked much younger than his 63 years, was wearing flip-flops and shorts, followed by Murphy, the good-natured Irish water dog who is usually his only company.

But on that July day, he had others with him: members of his legal team and a reporter. He was preparing for a federal trial that began this week in Central Islip, New York, before Judge Joan M. Azrac on charges of taking more fish from the sea than allowed by law.

Prosecutors say that in past years, Mr. Winkler exceeded the limit on fluke, a spotted flatfish also known as summer flounder, by at least 200,000 pounds, and caught more black sea bass than allowed.

He is accused of making hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit deals with one of Montauk’s most popular seafood establishments, Gusman’s. The two men originally charged with him, Brian and Asa Gusman, have made deals with the government and are expected to testify against him.

Gosman’s Dock houses restaurants and sprawling retail stores as well as wholesale trade. For decades, it has been one of the largest suppliers of fresh fish on Long Island, and a mainstay in Montauk, even when the city’s fishing village spirit has been overshadowed by big-spending tourists. That could change soon: Gosman’s Dock is on the market for $45 million.

Mr. Winkler’s boat remains moored directly behind Gusman’s compound. He runs a small-scale operation, working alone on his 45-foot fishing trawler while his legal bills pile up. He has been out on $100,000 bail for the past two years. His lawyers prevented him from discussing the details of the case or his motives for fighting the government.

Prosecutors accused Mr. Winkler of conspiring to “defraud the United States” by falsifying records and obstructing efforts to collect fishing data. If convicted of five counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and obstruction of justice, he could face years in prison and be forced to forfeit what the government says are ill-gotten gains.

“This was all done for the money,” Kenneth Nelson, the federal prosecutor, said on Wednesday in his opening statements in Mr. Winkler’s trial. He showed a zoomed-in photo of the fluke, a flat, spotted fish with both eyes on its left side, and said Mr. Winkler had caught 10 or 15 times the limit on some days.

The case is one of at least two dozen seafood trade cases brought by the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division over the past 15 years. These trials included four other Long Island fishing vessel operators accused of poaching, two of whom were sentenced to prison terms.

But the charges against one of the fishermen were dropped, and Mr. Winkler appointed attorneys for the case: Richard W. Leavitt and Peter S. Smith, the latter of whom spent his day on the boat sorting and separating piles of slimy fish. Large and small squid in boxes to be packed on ice and trucked to the New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. He was joined by the team’s investigator, Tom Brennan, who worked in the oyster and oyster business before turning to law enforcement.

The rules require anglers to throw away fish of desirable species that exceed the daily limit, although they often die in the process. Mr Smith warned his client to stay out of the discussion about the rules, but he did not back down from his views.

“It’s a waste of good, edible fish,” said Mr. Smith, struggling not to lose his position on the slippery surface.

Mr. Winkler was born 75 miles west of Montauk, in Bay Shore, New York, in 1960, the son of two salespeople. He went hunting and fishing recreationally, and began surfing as a teenager. He traveled and did odd jobs as a young man, spending time in the Bay Area punk scene and sailing to Europe and Africa. Montauk called him back, and soon he was aboard a fishing vessel, where he was mentored by a third-generation fisherman.

“He taught me everything,” Mr. Winkler said as he checked the cabin navigation systems at the start of the day. “I learned the business, how to make nets. I decided I could do it myself, so I did.”

For a living on the high seas, he eats bread from Night Owl Baker, the tangy sourdough specialist run by his partner Tracy Stoloff. Food magazine Edible East End once described the couple’s “fairytale life”.

Just after dawn, Mr. Winkler cast his first net, letting it slide below the surface before pulling it up, dripping and filling with catch. As the waves hit the boat, Mr. Winkler and his free laborers set about sorting through the pile, tossing in the robins, sea dogs and porgies while flocks of seagulls shouted overhead, eager to dispose of the waste.

That day’s trip would eventually be cut short at the request of Mr. Smith, who by midday was covered in fish remains.

The total load weighed 1,150 pounds of squid and about 30 pounds of fluke, well under the 420-pound limit.

The world’s oceans are under intense pressure. Humans have dumped so much plastic into the water that it has created a pollution vortex known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Climate change caused by carbon emissions is bleaching vibrant coral reefs and turning them into dead, colorless hulks. Fisheries that feed millions of people are becoming depleted as sea creatures are being caught faster than they can replace themselves.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says only 64.6 percent of fish stocks worldwide were at biologically sustainable levels in 2019, compared to 90 percent in 1974.

These days, most seafood consumed in the United States is imported, and the government estimates that more than half of it is farmed. On Long Island, commercial fishermen and their allies say a flawed quota system for wild-caught seafood is hastening the demise of the local industry as it struggles to compete against cheaper imports of questionable provenance.

Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, says regulators have sometimes used incomplete data to set quotas, resulting in an unfair system that undermines American fishermen.

“The issue is shoes versus suits; “What happens in the ivory tower versus what fishermen live and breathe every day,” she said.

“You know where your fish is coming from if it is caught by a commercial fisherman from New York State or the United States,” she said. “When you deal with outside this country, there is no guarantee that they will comply with any regulation at all.”

These quotas date back to the 1970s, and were originally intended to limit the presence of foreign fishing vessels in waters off the United States. In the decades that followed, as environmental awareness increased, amendments to federal law focused on protecting the environment and ensuring fishing grounds remained thriving.

Carl Safina, an author and ecologist who teaches at Stony Brook University on Long Island, helped set limits on fluke fishing as a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council in the 1990s, and credits them with helping to revive severely depleted stocks.

“Fish definitely need these rules,” he said. “There are a lot of people fishing and there are a lot of pressures on them.”

But restrictions on luck, in particular, have been strongly criticized. Sen. Chuck Schumer pushed a bill called the “Luck Fairness Act” to force the government to change the quota system, and in 2019, New York state sued the federal government over the rules.

The lawsuit claimed that numbers of coincidences have rebounded since the 1980s — and that those coincidences have moved north toward New York as ocean temperatures have risen due to climate change. The judge sided with the federal government. Officials in New York have appealed.

Currently, limits are in place and every fishing vessel captain must adhere to them.

Dr. Safina said he recognized that fishermen had long resented the rules. After all, they are solo entrepreneurs at the mercy of the elements, fish stocks and the law.

“I don’t like to see people on trial,” Dr. Safina said. As for rules: “I think these things are necessary, but I think it’s unfortunate that they’re necessary.”

Gosman’s opened as a modest soup stand in 1943, run by Robert and Mary Gosman, who were fish packers at the Fulton Fish Market, according to its website. They began buying real estate in the 1950s, laying the foundation for a small empire where they raised six children. Today, the 11.6-acre complex looks like an amusement park version of a New England waterfront town.

Visitors go for drinks and lobster tacos at the Topside Bar, sample oysters and ice cream or have a meal at the restaurant, which features enviable views and framed photos chronicling Montauk’s history. Inside Gusman’s fish market, people prepare to barbecue at their summer homes and buy fresh fish and handmade chocolate.

But beyond the retail and restaurants is the pier itself, where fishing vessels bob in the water in front of a cold storage facility. When the boxes and crates come in, they are packed on ice to be transported by truck into New York City and beyond.

When prosecutors announced the case against Mr. Winkler in 2021, they said it was part of a conspiracy with Brian and Asa Gusman and Bob Gusman, a wholesale business they ran. They were all charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.

The indictment said that between 2014 and 2016, Mr. Winkler caught fluke or black sea bass, often unloading his catch at the Gusmans facility, which would collect a fee for each box. The Gusmans’ trucks would then transport the catch to the Bronx for sale, according to the indictment. On several occasions, Brian Gosman was said to have received a “kickback on the illegal shell.”

The Gusman family pleaded guilty that year, and the company had to pay a $50,000 fine. Brian and Asa Gusman are awaiting sentencing, and their attorneys declined to comment.

A superseding indictment in 2022 named only Mr. Winkler and expanded the charges, citing 220 fishing trips that resulted in the catch of illegal fish worth about $888,000 on the wholesale market.

He was accused of catching black bass out of season and throwing the fluke overboard when the Coast Guard approached the new era. Prosecutors said Mr. Winkler texted at least once to Brian Gusman asking him to act as a law enforcement monitor before he docked.

On Wednesday, defense lawyer Mr. Levitt said that Mr. Winkler felt the need for his traditional trade and was being oppressed by the government and Gusman’s wealthy people.

“The Guzman family is here,” he said, gesturing as he walked into the courtroom. “Chris Winkler is here, and if the Gusmans step on Chris Winkler, they’ll walk.”

At the end of that July day, Mr. Winkler steered the New Age toward the dock behind Gosman, where he tied the boxes to a pulley to bring them ashore, still wearing galoshes as he talked with workers at the packing facility. He had spent the day rushing around the boat, tossing squid from plastic bins into bins of ice, running up and down the boat’s hold, washing everything between transfers.

A few weeks later, he appeared differently at a procedural hearing before Judge Azrak. He’d replaced his ink-stained shirt with gray jeans, and the calm smile had disappeared from the boat. He looked pensive, perhaps resigned.

The judge said she expected the trial to be “wonderful.”

Mr Winkler asked to be excused from the only remaining pre-trial hearing, so he could spend his day fishing instead. Judge Azraq granted his request.

“I will follow through,” Mr. Winkler said when the hearing concluded. “That’s all I can do.”

Audio produced by Barin Behrouz.

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