A division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is in charge of enforcing the fisheries laws here, has a very poor reputation in this community. For over a decade, local fishermen complained to Washington about astronomic financial penalties being levied on them by these officials over the slightest indiscretion, and in some cases the officers seized catches and even boats and other fishing equipment and vehicles for violations that were just miniscule. And they treated the fishermen like criminals.
While doing this, the officers would show up in brand new cars, SUVs and even sports cars, and they would talk openly about the government-paid vacations they took to exotic areas and other perks of their jobs. Many of the fishermen, losing their boats to these enforcers, had to leave the business. The result of the complaints by the fishermen, late last year, was the firing (actually a transfer) of the head of the region amidst accusations that he and his men were operating a virtual police state, overcharging the fishermen and then putting in for reimbursement from the government millions of dollars in unnecessary expenses. After the firing, NOAA announced it would implement changes in the system and basically said it wanted to bury all the rest under the rug. They’d forget about these million dollar indiscretions, and they’d “set things straight going forward.”
The fishermen were outraged. They complained to our local Congressmen, and in the end, Congress ordered an investigation into the irregularities. That is ongoing. Then in later news, the fishermen were offered all the overcharges back. That is currently also ongoing.
With this as background, it is interesting to see what happened when a state conservation officer of the Department of Environmental Conservation charged a sister and brother, Kelly and Paul Lester, of fishery violations on the very same day. She was charged with selling shellfish without a permit from a self-serve clam stand on the front lawn of her home on Abraham’s Path, and he was charged with catching more fluke than the legal limit of 140 pounds.
I’m not sure about the fishing charge, but Kelly Lester’s charge was filed as a misdemeanor, and could result in jail time. This charge was considered an outrage in this community.
The Lester family has been fishing local waters for many generations, going back to 1712. Their right, and the right of other citizens here to catch and sell fish goes back to an edict issued by the King of England in 1686. That edict, the Dongan Patent, remains the law of the land today. The Lesters said they would take this matter all the way to the Supreme Court. They were particularly concerned that DEC officers had come on their property when nobody was home and confiscated the clams and also some scallops and fish. Some of these items were intended as the Lesters’ dinner. Reportedly the officers took the fish to Stuart’s Seafood Shop down the street and sold it, receiving a check made out to the DEC.
With the summonses written, however, it had to go to court. In a hearing in August with East Hampton Justice Lisa Rana, the charge against Kelly was reduced to a violation. Last Wednesday, the matter came up for a bench trial in East Hampton Town Court. The courtroom was packed with fishermen as the case of the Lesters vs. the DEC was adjudicated.
Judge Rana heard both sides.
Daniel Rodgers, the lawyer for the Lesters, questioned Richard Massio, the DEC officer who filed the charges. Wasn’t it true he didn’t actually see any clams or fish being sold? He replied he did not. It was just this stand sitting there with the word CLAMS and SCALLOPS on it. He didn’t see any actual transactions. Judge Rana threw that case out.
Then Officer Massio was asked about the fluke aboard Paul Lester’s boat. Wasn’t it true that he had several days earlier admitted in a deposition that he had made a mistake about what the tags on some of Paul Lester’s fish boxes said? Yes, that was true, Massio said. The Judge then threw that case out.
After that, everybody went home. Justice had prevailed.