It was just before dawn when Chris Winkler, a fisherman in Montauk, N.Y., set off on his trawler, the New Age.
A longhaired surfer who looks far younger than his 63 years, Mr. Winkler was in flip-flops and shorts, trailed by Murphy, a good-natured Irish water spaniel who is usually his only company.
But on that July day, he had others aboard: members of his legal team and a reporter. He was gearing up for a federal trial that began this week in Central Islip, N.Y., before Judge Joan M. Azrack on charges of taking more fish from the sea than the law allows.
Listen to This Article
For more audio journalism and storytelling, download New York Times Audio, a new iOS app available for news subscribers.
Prosecutors say that in past years Mr. Winkler exceeded the limit on fluke, a spotted flat fish also known as summer flounder, by at least 200,000 pounds, and caught more black sea bass than was allowed.
He is accused of making hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit deals with of one of Montauk’s most venerable seafood institutions, Gosman’s. The two men originally charged with him, Bryan and Asa Gosman, cut deals with the government and are expected to testify against him.
Gosman’s Dock boasts sprawling restaurants and retail stores in addition to its wholesale business. For decades, it has been one of Long Island’s largest suppliers of fresh fish, and has been a mainstay in Montauk, even as the fishing-village soul of the town has been overshadowed by big-spending tourists in something of a Hamptonification. That could change soon: Gosman’s Dock is up for sale, priced at $45 million.
Mr. Winkler’s boat is still docked just behind the Gosman’s complex. He runs a shoestring operation, working by himself on his 45-foot trawler as his legal bills mount. He has been out on a $100,000 bail bond for the past two years. His lawyers barred him from discussing the particulars of the case, or his motivations for fighting the government.
The New Age heads through the Montauk inlet in search of fluke and squid in a July dawn.
Prosecutors have accused Mr. Winkler of conspiracy to “defraud the United States” by falsifying records and obstructing efforts to collect fishing data. If convicted on five counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and obstruction, he could face years in prison and have to forfeit what the government says are ill-gotten gains.
“This was all done for money,” Kenneth Nelson, a federal prosecutor, said Wednesday in opening statements at Mr. Winkler’s trial. He displayed a blown-up image of a fluke, a flat, speckled fish with both eyes on its left side, and said that Mr. Winkler had caught 10 or 15 times the amount allowed on some days.
The case is one of at least two dozen related to the seafood trade brought by the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division over the past 15 years. Those included prosecutions of four other Long Island trawler operators charged with overfishing fluke, two of whom received prison time.
But one fisherman had the charges against him dismissed, and Mr. Winkler has hired the lawyers from that case: Richard W. Levitt and Peter S. Smith, the latter of whom spent the day on the boat sorting through piles of slimy fish and separating large and small squid into bins to be packed on ice and trucked to the New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. He was joined by the team’s investigator, Tom Brennan, who worked in clamming and oystering before going into law enforcement.
The rules require fishermen to throw back fish from sought-after species that exceed the daily limit, even though they often perish in the process. Mr. Smith warned his client to steer clear of the discussion about the rules, but did not hold back his own opinions.
“It’s a waste of good edible fish,” Mr. Smith said, struggling not to lose his footing on the slippery deck.
A Life Afloat
Mr. Winkler was born 75 miles west of Montauk, in Bay Shore, N.Y., in 1960, the son of two salespeople. He went fishing and clamming recreationally, and began surfing in his teens. He traveled and did odd jobs as a young man, spending time in the punk scene of the Bay Area and sailing to Europe and Africa. Montauk called him back, and soon he was on a trawler, being mentored by a third-generation fisherman.
“He taught me everything,” Mr. Winkler said as he checked his navigation systems inside the cabin at the start of the day. “I learned the business, how to do nets. I decided, I can do this for myself, and that’s what I did.”
For sustenance on the high seas, he eats bread from Night Owl Baker, which specializes in tangy sourdough and is run by his partner, Tracy Stoloff. The food magazine Edible East End once described the couple’s “fairy tale life.”
Just after daybreak, Mr. Winkler cast his first net, letting it skim under the surface before he hauled it up, dripping and full of catch. As waves lapped the boat, Mr. Winkler and his pro bono deckhands set about sorting through the pile, throwing back the sea robins, dogfish and porgies as flocks of sea gulls squawked overhead, eager for the castoffs.
That day’s voyage would ultimately be cut short at the request of Mr. Smith, who by midday was covered in fish gunk.
The total haul weighed in at 1,150 pounds of squid and about 30 pounds of fluke, well under the limit of 420 pounds.
Saving the Seas
The world’s oceans are under punishing stress. Humans have dumped so much plastic into the water that they have created a gyre of pollution known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Climate change driven by carbon emissions is bleaching vibrant coral reefs to dead, colorless hulks. Fisheries that feed millions of people are becoming depleted as sea creatures are harvested faster than they can replace themselves.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that only 64.6 percent of fishery stocks around the world were at biologically sustainable levels in 2019, compared with 90 percent in 1974.
These days, most of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, and the government estimates that more than half of it is farmed. On Long Island, commercial fishermen and their allies say a flawed quota system for seafood caught in the wild is hastening the demise of the domestic industry as it struggles to compete against cheaper imports of questionable provenance.
Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, argues that regulators have at times used incomplete data to set the quotas, resulting in an unfair system that undercuts American fishermen.
“The issue is boots versus suits; what takes place in the ivory tower versus what fishermen live and breathe every day,” she said.
“You know where your fish is coming from if it’s caught by a New York State or U.S. commercial fisherman,” she said. “When you deal with outside this country, there’s no guarantee they adhere to any regulation at all.”
The quotas date to the 1970s, and were originally aimed at limiting foreign fishing vessels in the waters off the United States. In the decades since, as ecological awareness has grown, amendments to the federal law have focused on protecting the environment and ensuring that fishing grounds remain booming with catch.
Carl Safina, an author and ecologist who teaches at Stony Brook University on Long Island, helped establish the limits on fluke fishing as a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in the 1990s and credited them with helping to revive a severely depleted stock.
“The fish definitely need these rules,” he said. “There’s just a lot of people fishing and a lot of pressure on them.”
But the limits on fluke, in particular, have come under fire. Senator Chuck Schumer has pushed a bill called the “Fluke Fairness Act” to force the government to change the quota system, and in 2019, New York State sued the federal government over the rules.
The lawsuit argued that fluke populations have bounced back since the 1980s — and that fluke have moved north toward New York as the oceans have grown warmer because of climate change. A judge sided with the federal government; New York officials have appealed.
For now, the limits stand and every trawler captain must abide by them.
Dr. Safina said he recognizes that fishermen have long chafed at the rules. After all, they are solo entrepreneurs at the mercy of the elements, the fish stock — and the law.
“I don’t relish seeing people prosecuted,” Dr. Safina said. As for the rules: “I think these things are necessary, but I think it’s unfortunate that they’re necessary.”
Chowder to Fine Chocolate
Gosman’s opened as a humble chowder stand in 1943, run by Robert and Mary Gosman, who were fish packers for the Fulton Fish Market, according to its website. They started buying property in the 1950s, laying the groundwork for a mini-empire as they raised six children. Today, the 11.6-acre complex feels a bit like a theme park version of a New England waterfront town.
Visitors go for drinks and lobster tacos at the Topside bar, savor clams and ice cream or grab a meal at the restaurant, which features enviable views and framed photos chronicling Montauk’s history. Inside Gosman’s Fish Market, people getting ready to grill at their summer homes buy fresh fish and artisanal chocolates.
But behind the retail and restaurants is the dock itself, where trawlers bob in the water in front of a cold-storage facility. As boxes and bins come in, they’re packed on ice for truck transport to New York City and beyond.
When prosecutors announced the case against Mr. Winkler in 2021, they said it was part of a conspiracy with Bryan and Asa Gosman and Bob Gosman Inc., a wholesale company they managed. They were all charged with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
The indictment said that between 2014 and 2016 Mr. Winkler caught over-quota fluke or black sea bass, frequently offloading his catch at the Gosmans’ facility, which would collect a fee for each box. Then, the Gosmans’ trucks would transport the catch to the Bronx for sale, according to the indictment. On several occasions, Bryan Gosman was said to have received a “commission on illegal fluke.”
The Gosmans pleaded guilty that year, and the business had to pay a $50,000 fine. Bryan and Asa Gosman are awaiting sentencing, and their lawyers declined to comment.
A superseding indictment in 2022 named only Mr. Winkler, and expanded the accusations, citing 220 fishing trips that had netted illegal fish worth about $888,000 on the wholesale market.
He was accused of having caught black sea bass out of season, and throwing fluke overboard when the Coast Guard approached the New Age. At least once, prosecutors said, Mr. Winkler texted Bryan Gosman to ask him to serve as a lookout for law enforcement before he docked.
On Wednesday, the defense attorney Mr. Levitt said that Mr. Winkler felt a calling for his traditional trade, and was being steamrollered by the government and the wealthy Gosmans.
“The Gosmans are up here,” he said, gesticulating as he paced the courtroom. “Chris Winkler is down here, and if the Gosmans step on Chris Winkler, they’re going to walk.”
In Court, at Sea
At the end of that July day, Mr. Winkler steered the New Age toward the dock behind Gosman’s, where he strapped the boxes to a pulley to bring them ashore, still wearing his galoshes as he chatted with the workers in the packing facility. He had spent the day darting around the boat, tossing squid from plastic bins into boxes with ice, running up and down from the hold, hosing everything down between hauls.
A couple of weeks later, he cut a different figure at a procedural hearing before Judge Azrack. He had swapped out his squid-ink-stained T-shirt for a button-down tucked into gray jeans, and the easygoing smile from the boat was gone. He seemed pensive — perhaps resigned.
The judge said she expected the trial to be “fascinating.”
Mr. Winkler asked to be excused from the only remaining pretrial hearing, so that he could spend the day fishing instead. Judge Azrack granted his request.
“I’m going to see it through,” Mr. Winkler said when the hearing concluded. “It’s all I can do.”
Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.