A Brooklyn fish dealer was sentenced to four months in prison Wednesday for his part in a conspiracy to steal nearly 250,000 pounds of fluke from the federal government, the Justice Department announced.
It all started in 2009, when the dealer, Alan Dresner, learned that one of the fishing boat captains was consistently overharvesting fluke, also known as summer flounder, a popular flatfish native to the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of reporting the captain, Levittown resident Anthony Joseph, Dresner began buying large amounts from him, making a fortune from the fleeced fishy fluke.
Both commercial fishermen and fish dealers are required to report their catches and purchases, respectively, to the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Joseph consistently under-reported his catch, while Dresner under-reported his purchases. Had they not collaborated on the fraud, there would have been a mismatch between the amount of fish caught and purchased, and the scheme would have been busted.
Between July 2009 and December 2011, Dresner filed “at least 120 false dealer reports with NOAA, representing a loss of 246,376 pounds of fluke valued at $510,000,” according to the DOJ. By way of comparison, a male African elephant, the world’s largest terrestrial animal, weighs about 15,000 pounds — that’s 16 elephants worth of flounder, which, on average, weigh between one and three pounds individually.
An April DOJ statement announcing Joseph’s guilty plea explained that in addition to filing false fishing logs, he “utilized the exempted fisheries permit quota that was acquired through the federal RSA [Research Set-Aside] Program as a mask for his fluke overages.” RSA programs allow fishermen to bid for permits allowing them to fish well beyond legal limits. The proceeds from these auctions in turn fund fishery research.
Joseph joked that the RSA Program was “a license to steal” and even referred to it as “Research Steal-Aside.” Long Island newspaper Newsday reported that he caught more than 310,000 pounds of fluke over the legal limit — above and beyond what was allowed by the RSA program — valued at upwards of $632,000. Joseph is scheduled to be sentenced on May 20, 2015.
“Theft of domestic marine resources has far-reaching consequences beyond illicit financial gain,” Wednesday’s DOJ statement said. “Fisheries managers operate on the basic assumption that fishers and dealers make accurate and honest reports to NOAA. When harvested fish is misreported or unreported, the integrity of fisheries statistics and associated mathematical models are jeopardized. Recently, based in large part on the recently quantified illegal fluke harvesting revealed by the guilty pleas in the Jones Inlet Seafood,Charles Wertz Jr., Anthony Joseph, and Dresner cases, on Aug. 12, 2014, the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council voted to suspend the RSA Program for 2015 in order analyze the effect illegal fishing has had on the soundness of the RSA Program.”
“This scheme to land tremendous amounts of overages for profit was not only detrimental to the RSA program, but also to the law abiding fishermen who will not be able to participate in this program in 2015,” said NOAA Special Agent Logan Gregory.
In addition to his four months of hard time, Dresner was also fined $6,000, ordered to pay $15,000 to the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County to help to pay for the enhancement of fluke habitat, and to pay $510,000 in restitution to the Marine Resources Account of the New York State Conservation Fund.