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.
Investigators are now said to be in Florida. The IG's timetable for finishing has been stretched more than once, with a report not expected until at least January.
At 61, Lee said he intended to complete a course in vessel appraisals and return to work as surveyor.
His full-time fishing career was brought to an end at mid year by 207 pounds of cod over the daily limit of 800, and by more than a dozen days in 2004, 2005 and 2006 when his black hulled Ocean Reporter caught and landed yellowtail that would have been legal but for a federal yellowtail authorization letter that he and many other fishermen didn't have — and didn't know they needed.
As negotiated by his attorney, Stephen Ouellette, Lee said he agreed to pay the Office of Law Enforcement of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 10 days from the 22 he had on his mixed stock groundfish permit for 2009.
In addition to solo trawling from the 43-foot Ocean Reporter, which Lee said he built from scratch using the welding skills he learned in four years' service as a Navy Seabee — including one in Vietnam — Lee has also become an expert underwater photographer and researcher in many joint projects with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
That work would continue, he said in an interview on T-Wharf in Rockport, where he lives with wife Sandy.
Last winter, as NOAA's regional office of law enforcement dropped a massive set of allegations on the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction — aiming to shut it down for 120 days and fine it $335,200 — Lee and about two dozen fishermen found themselves implicated, facing parallel charges to the 59 counts against the auction for dock totes of illegal fish.
All allegations dated to 2004 through 2006, and were tied to the auction case.
The theory of the case against the auction — the dominant distribution platform for fish from the Gulf of Maine — is that the brokerage house, organized by the Ciulla family a decade ago, also violated the Magnuson Act by taking and selling illegally caught fish.
The Ciullas are fighting the NOVA — or notice of violation — and the "assessment," as the indictment-like civil charges under the Magnuson Act are known, in the administrative court system.
Questions about the motives of the Office of Law Enforcement in its push to penalize and close the auction existed even before the case was announced last February. While most fishermen and businesses facing claims of illegalities settled rather than risk higher fines for losing contested cases, the Ciulla family, which has operated a small conglomeration of fishing businesses from Harbor Loop, have repeatedly challenged law enforcement.
The family was appealing a previous claim against the auction — for taking and brokering a tote with more cod weight than allowed — when NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement filed the 59-count NOVA.
As the big case landed, the region's congressional leadership was leveling charges against NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service that amounted to regulatory economic homicide. Seven of the region's coastal states' U.S. senators challenged the regulatory direction of the agency, arguing that NMFS was "pushing the industry off a cliff."
"We will not permit NMFS to regulate our nation's first fishery out of existence," the senators wrote to James Balsiger, NMFS' acting administrator.
Weeks later, based on information provided by Lee, the Times reported that the Ocean Reporter had been boarded by a team from the Coast Guard's 110-foot cutter, Grand Isle, in 2006, and written up for having three allegedly illegal flounder and a purportedly illegal fillet of a dab on board.
Months later, the Coast Guard dropped the charges. The service serves as sea-faring beat cops for NOAA prosecutors who direct the Coast Guard to targeted boats.
"We prioritize the Coast Guard patrols and what fisheries are open and where we suspect they will find violations," said Andy Cohen, NMFS' chief regional law enforcement official, at the time of the report on the aborted charges against Lee. "We provide them with targets from a variety of sources."
In April, Lee drove to Silver Spring, Md., where NOAA/NMFS is headquartered to ask for an explanation from Dale Jones, the former Hagerstown, Md., police chief who has been NOAA's national chief of law enforcement for a decade, why so many fishermen had been hooked to charges and fines based on their failure to hold a yellowtail authorization letter.
Lee told the Times Jones offered no substantive comment. Repeated efforts by the Times to reach Jones have been unsuccessful. Deidre Casey, the NOAA enforcement attorney for the auction-related cases, could not be reached for comment regarding this story.
The yellowtail letter was published as an adjunct to the existing groundfish permits. Fishermen were advised to obtain a letter to specify whether they were fishing for yellowtail in the Gulf of Maine or in the waters of Southern New England.
Letters were free of charge and could be obtained with a phone call, but many fishermen contended they were unaware the letters had the effort of superseding permits.
Days later, a Times story based on interviews with many fishermen indicating that investigators offered lesser or dropped penalties for information to implicate the auction.
Lee was one of the fishermen who allowed his name to be used, and said:
"You can say they asked me to help them, and I said, 'No,' as what they wanted me to say would have been a lie."
In June, Andy Cohen, NOAA's chief regional law enforcement agent, coordinated another enforcement move on the auction, seeking to enforce a disputed shutdown order based on a claim that the auction had violated a probation agreement from an earlier case. The auction obtained a federal judge's injunction against the attempted shutdown.
Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zisner announced his decision to probe NOAA law enforcement in June. When teams came to Massachusetts, Lee again spoke publicly after he gave his testimony.
After his own interview, Lee challenged fishermen to overcome their worry about retribution and either register their complaints — he said fishermen should give the IG a chance to force corrections in the system — or forever hold their peace.
"Don't tell me in Dunkin' Donuts," Lee said in a telephone interview after the end of his closed-door interview. "Stand up for your rights. This needed to be done for 10 years."
In an interview this week, Lee said he considered the NOAA law enforcers to be "the American modern Gestapo."
"I found out more than a week ago (about Lee's decision to sell his fishing permit)," said auction President Larry Ciulla. "I'm very disappointed."
"Bill Lee is a gentleman who worked so hard, representing what is good about the industry — intelligent people doing an honorable job on daily basis putting their lives on the line."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or via e-mail at email@example.com