The trial of Christopher Winkler focuses attention on commercial fishing

The trial of Montauk fisherman Christopher Winkler began last week by portraying the famed fishing community as a land of the haves and have-nots, where members of the Gusman family exercised control over vast fishing interests and Winkler was motivated by “greed.”

Testimony at trial in federal court in Central Islip opened a window on the movements of fish from Montauk to the Bronx, sometimes illegally to other states to avoid New York’s relatively low share of fluke and other species.

The certification also opened a window into the large quantity of netted fish that must be returned to the Dead Sea to remain within strict state limits that change throughout the year.

Winkler, who is charged with mail and wire fraud and conspiracy charges, faces 20 years in prison if convicted of illegally overfishing fluke and black sea bass on about 220 fishing trips between 2014 and 2016. He has pleaded not guilty. Newsday first reported on the case against Winkler and Gusman in 2021.

  • Montauk Hunter Trial Christopher Winkler has begun his plea in federal court on charges of illegally over-harvesting fluke and black sea bass.
  • Winkler charged with mail and wire fraud and conspiracy and faces 20 years in prison. He pleaded not guilty.
  • The certificate has opened a window The huge amount of netted fish that must be returned to the sea is dead to stay within strict state limits that change throughout the year.

His former co-defendants, Asa and Brian Gosman of Montauk, reached plea agreements in 2022 and were portrayed in opening arguments by defense attorneys as cooperating witnesses in the government’s case against Winkler, the only Montauk hunters who will face trial. The couple is expected to testify at trial in the coming days. George Stamboulides, the Guzman family’s attorney, declined to comment.

The government alleges that Winkler caught more than $850,000 worth of bass and black sea bass during the three years covered by the indictment, and conspired with local fish traders, including the Gusman family, to underreport his catch. The government alleges that mailing and electronically transmitting false reports amounted to mail and wire fraud, in addition to conspiracy and other charges.

Prosecutor Kenneth Nelson told jurors that Winkler was motivated by greed.

“Instead of following the rules and limits on how much fish you can catch, he decided they didn’t apply to him and he was going to catch as much fish as he wanted,” Nelson said, according to a trial transcript. “Why? Because of greed.”

“He was not the only one who seized all these fish, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but he was in a conspiracy with other people and other companies,” Nelson said.

Winkler’s lawyers at trial so far have described their client as someone at the bottom of the Montauk food chain, while others, including the Gusman family, are alleged to play a larger role but have pleaded guilty to lesser crimes.

“The Gusmans were (originally) charged with crimes punishable by 20 years in prison,” defense attorney Richard Leavitt told the jury, according to a trial transcript. “Well, the Gusmans are very important people here on Long Island.”

“The Gusman family is down here, and Chris Winkler is down here,” Levitt said of his client, who has been commercial fishing for 45 years and works “all hours of the day and night…it’s a dangerous job.”

Winkler is one of two commercial fishermen who have taken the government’s case against them to trial. Others in the more than decade-long investigation into commercial fishing in New York reached plea agreements and were sentenced to fines and prison time, or in some cases, both. Northport fisherman Tom Cockell eventually saw his charges dropped after reaching a deferred prosecution agreement following a hung jury in the trial.

With some day trips limits of up to 70 pounds per fluke, anglers are required to throw all flukes above that limit, and in many cases far more than they can land. Winkler’s lawyers said the forms that fishermen must complete truthfully almost always leave out any number for these returns, potentially excluding large amounts of fish from government population surveys.

“So, if a fisherman catches in his net a thousand pounds of shell and is only allowed to take a hundred pounds, before landing he must dispose of 900 pounds of dead fluke?” Levitt asked David Gouveia, NOAA’s assistant regional director for analysis and program support for fisheries.

“Under the regulations, yes, because there is a possession limit,” Gouveia said.

“But you know, don’t you, that the shooting pole in (the ship’s voyage report) is never filled by anglers, right?” Levitt asked.

“I don’t know if I would go that far,” he replied. “I saw it full, and I saw it not full.”

A convoy of more than 25 witnesses is expected to head to the three-week trial, including fishermen, fish market traders and fisheries regulators. It has already seen some colorful characters.

Daniel Fagan, a one-time member of Winkler’s staff, admitted in court that he was testifying under two grants of immunity. When Nelson asked him if Winkler ever brought excessive amounts of fish on board, Fagan replied, “Oh my God, a lot of times.” He also said he pushed the boxed fish out to sea when a Coast Guard boat greeted Winkler’s trawler, the New Era.

During cross-examination, Leavitt admitted that he told the grand jury that he did not know for sure whether Winkler’s reports about the fish were accurate. Fagan has not been charged with any crimes related to the government’s hunting investigation.

Fagan said he also worked for the Gusman family, but has recently become commercial fishing on his own. He testified that the quantities of illegal fish on board Winkler’s fishing vessel ranged from 100 to 500 pounds per day. He also admitted to overfishing about 50 times himself, including illegally overfishing striped bass in 2021 and 2022 for his own operation, for which he received his first immunity agreement.

Fagan also discussed a deal known as “shak fish” sales that involved selling the fish for money and splitting it with the crew, and identified three local markets to which he sold it, avoiding taxes and reporting. He also reported that he took approximately 5,980 pounds of fish caught in New York waters and sent them to New Jersey, a violation of state law.

Roland J. Riopelle, Fagan’s attorney, declined to comment on Fagan’s testimony, which concluded last week.

(tags for translation) Environment and Nature

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