The acting US commerce secretary ordered federal regulators Friday to return about $544,000 in unjust fines collected from 14 fishermen or fishing businesses, most of whom worked Northeast waters.
Secretary Rebecca Blank also directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to forgive about $150,000 in debt related to sanctions to two complainants.
Her decisions followed the second phase of a probe into persistent complaints from New England fishermen about abusive treatment and excessive fines by the officers and attorneys who enforce the nation’s fishing laws.
Blank’s decision means nearly $1.2 million in unfair penalties has been ordered returned. In May 2011, the commerce secretary ordered $650,000 in fines refunded.
Carlos Rafael, a fishing boat owner in New Bedford who will get back $17,500, is pleased to get anything, given the industry’s struggles. But he said the bigger victory is accountability for fisheries officers.
‘‘Even if I didn’t get any money, the world is watching them,’’ he said. ‘‘Before nobody was watching them. . . . Before they were like the Gestapo. Before you were [automatically] guilty, the party was over.’’
The 15-month investigation covered cases between March 1994 and February 2010. It included interviews with people who absorbed five-, six-, and even seven-figure fines for violations ranging from paperwork problems to allegedly fishing in closed areas. A total of 93 cases were reviewed, and Blank ordered money returned or debt forgiven in 27 cases, 23 in the Northeast.
In a memo to his 554-page report, special investigator Charles Swartwood said fishery police and attorneys assessed unreasonable penalties and, in some cases, jacked up fines to pressure fishermen to settle at lesser amounts.
Blank said in the memo that enforcement officers who abused their power did a disservice to the majority who acted professionally. She noted the complaints verified by Swartwood in both reports make up less than 1 percent of the enforcement work done during the review period.
‘‘This decision concludes the department’s review of past cases, but our commitment to strong, effective, and trusted fisheries law enforcement will continue,’’ she wrote.