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Feds fine anglers for flounder catch

Mark Carroll was caught by surprise March 23 when he was notified by the National Marine Fisheries Service that he would have to pay a $49,703 fine for illegally catching yellowtail flounder in 2004 and 2005. And he’s not the only one.

The yellowtail flounder is being overfished, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

As many as two dozen boat owners who used the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction were named in a Notice of Violation of Assessment of Administrative Penalty given to the auction in February.

Carroll’s fine was the highest in connection with this case at press time, according to Deirdre Casey, enforcement attorney for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Population levels of yellowtail flounder are considered low, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Carroll and several of the other fishermen selling to the auction did not have Letters of Agreement, to possess or land yellowtail flounder in that area, according to Casey. The LOA has not been a requirement for the multispecies vessels since Nov. 1, 2006, when the vessel monitoring system became a requirement on all multispecies permitted boats, says Casey.

NOAA law enforcement executed a warrant in December 2006 on the auction and seized their records for an audit, she says. After a long and careful review of auction records, NOAA found 20 fishermen in violation of federal fishing standards and more than 200 violations involving illegal purchases of cod and yellowtail flounder. All told, the auction is facing fines of $335,200 and a 120-day shutdown for taking and selling the illegal catches from 2004 through 2006.

Casey says, in the case of Carroll, all multispecies permit holders were given several notifications of the requirement to get an LOA to fish for yellowtail in the area of Gloucester and he should have had “no confusions about the rules.”

Carroll received no warnings about his status, according to his attorney, Stephen Ouellette.

“When you have 24 people landing on a facility that have made the same mistake, that’s a systemic problem,” says Ouellette. “These guys get 175 pages of single-spaced of federal regulations they have to follow while 15 years ago it was maybe 20 pages.”

Individual fishermen can be fined up to $130,000 per violation, says Casey, but that amount is rarely applied. “A first-time violation is usually between $80 and $5,000,” says Casey. “But we believe at this point there were over 250 or more illegal landings at this auction.”

Ouellette says the complexity of the federal rules have begun to drive away more and more fishermen for fear of violating the rules without even knowing it.

“Some of these guys get slapped with a $100,000 fine, and they don’t even make that much in the best of years,” says Ouellette.

Auction President Larry Ciulla told the Gloucester Daily Times that he intends to contest the claims of illegal brokering to fight the 120-day shutdown order.

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the June 2009 issue.

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