Fisherman Convicted in Plot to Sell $900,000 of Illegal Fluke and Bass

A Montauk, N.Y., fisherman accused of vastly exceeding legal limits on how much fluke he could bring ashore was convicted on all charges in a federal court in Central Islip on Wednesday.

Chris Winkler, 63, captain of a 45-foot trawler called the New Age, was accused of falsifying records in order to sell illegal fluke, also known as summer flounder, and black sea bass to partners from Gosman’s Dock, a mini-empire of restaurants and shops in Montauk, and dealers in the New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. Prosecutors said the over-quota fish was worth nearly $900,000 on the wholesale market.

Two cousins from the Gosman family were initially charged — but they flipped and testified against Mr. Winkler, with one claiming he had helped the New Age evade detection by the Coast Guard.

Mr. Winkler could face many years in prison on five charges of conspiracy, obstruction and mail fraud, though he is unlikely to receive a lengthy sentence under federal sentencing practices. He was stoic as the verdict was read in court on Wednesday. His lawyer Richard W. Levitt vowed to appeal, and said the case was based on outdated legal limits on fluke fishing.

“There is nothing at all rational about this system, but Mr. Winkler and other Long Island fishermen are easy scapegoats for this regulatory insanity,” he said.

The verdict came after a roughly two-week trial that featured an array of colorful characters who had worked on the boats and docks of Montauk, and officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors fishing.

The proceedings shined a light on a long-running debate between Long Island commercial fishermen and the federal government, which has increasingly turned to criminal prosecutions instead of civil proceedings to enforce fishing rules.

The case was led by Christopher L. Hale and Kenneth Nelson of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. Over the last decade, the division’s environmental crime section has prosecuted four other trawler operators on Long Island in cases that involved fluke. Two of those fishermen received prison sentences, of seven months and a year. Four fish dealer companies and six managers were also prosecuted, and one of the managers received a four-month sentence.

On the final day of the Winkler trial, Mr. Nelson reiterated to the jury why accurate reports must be submitted to federal regulators.

“They’re trying to preserve the fishery resources for fish today, tomorrow and for generations to come,” he said.

Mr. Levitt, Mr. Winkler’s lawyer, presented his client as a “working stiff” who had been wronged by the government in a misguided prosecution. He highlighted the testimony of a federal official who said that the fluke population was rising, and that the species was not overfished. Mr. Levitt also pointed to New York State’s low quotas for fluke fishing, which local officials have criticized, and rules that force fishermen to throw back over-quota fish into the water — even if most die.

“He’s got heart,” Mr. Levitt told the jury. “Every single witness that testified that worked for him said he was paid in full, and you heard testimony that they were all paid by check, they were all paid on the books. And everyone that commented on his skills said he was a skillful fisherman who took care of his vessel and took care of his fish.”

The case concerned fishing trips between 2014 and 2017, and the government took pains to demonstrate that Mr. Winkler had lied on forms he was required to submit to the government about how much fish he caught. The prosecutors showed consistent, sizable discrepancies between the numbers reported to the government and those recorded on sales receipts.

But Mr. Levitt vigorously disputed whether the government could prove that Mr. Winkler had lied, repeating that investigators had never boarded the boat to search it during their yearslong investigation. He used a visual aid projected onto a screen in front of the jury: an image from a 1980s Wendy’s commercial with the punchline “Where’s the beef?” In a caption, he replaced “beef” with “fluke.”

Perhaps most important, Mr. Levitt excoriated the cooperating witnesses as unreliable, a strategy that he had used in a similar case when defending another Long Island fisherman, Thomas Kokell. That case ended in a hung jury, and the charges were then dismissed in 2019 after a deferred-prosecution agreement.

Mr. Levitt argued that several of the witnesses in the Winkler trial had gotten “sweetheart deals” for immunity from prosecution — including Asa and Bryan Gosman, the cousins who were originally charged along with Mr. Winkler. They and others testified that they had also traded in illicit fish, which the defense portrayed as common among fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened by outdated quotas.

The Gosman cousins each pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy and now await sentencing; they could face up to five years in prison. Their lawyers declined to comment. The Gosman’s Dock complex, which is owned by a number of family members, was put up for sale earlier this year for $45 million.

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