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December 8, 2009

Checking out: Outspoken Lee says he's been 'forced out' by feds

Outspoken Lee says he's been 'forced out' by feds

Bill Lee, who built his own boat and, in 37 years of fishing, became the unofficial ombudsman for the Gloucester fleet, has sold his permit to settle a $19,800 claim for illegal landings and is exiting the industry — with bitterness toward federal fishery law enforcers and the regulatory system.

"I was kind of forced out," Lee said. "I have been more vocal and out front. I've never allowed myself to be intimidated by law enforcement."

Lee also said his plight was not unique.

"Every port is losing a fisherman every week," he said. "This is not a Gloucester story, this is an Atlantic seaboard party."

Law enforcement fines are taking their toll along with conservative catch allocations.

The goal of Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is to get a "significant fraction" of the boats in New England out of the fishery.

Lee said he sold the permit to a broker for $71,000, and received $61,000 after the brokerage fee was subtracted.

"I'll pay every single fishery related bill and after taxes, I'll be left with $22,000 — that's for 37 years," he said, noting that the size of the penalty meant his business was no longer viable.

"How could we come up with $19,800?" he said. "No way a bank would lend you that money. It was a real tough repeated conversation in the kitchen with my wife."

He said he hopes an ongoing national investigation into federal fishery law enforcement practices would bring the fish police and prosecutors to justice.

Lee's willingness to speak publicly about his clashes with the Office of Law Enforcement helped bring about the investigation by the Inspector General of the Department of Interior, which began last summer in New England, then advanced down the coast and to the West Coast as well.

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