A down-on-his-luck fisherman, crushed financially by a massive lobster die-off in Long Island Sound, managed to avoid prison when he was sentenced Wednesday in federal court for taking money to secretly scuttle boats.
Carlos Santos of Westbrook was described in federal court as a successful lobster fisherman - until about two decades ago when there was a total collapse in the Long Island Sound lobster population, which had previously supported a $12 million a year fishery.
Out of work and struggling to support an extended family in Connecticut and Portugal, Santos, 58, agreed to work off some of his debt by taking an offer from the owner of a Bridgeport marina to secretly sink boats that had been abandoned by the owners on marina property. Santos was charged with obstruction of navigable waters by sinking vessels
The cause of the collapse of the lobster fishery - by some estimates, lobster landings fell 100% in 1999-2000 - is still a subject of debate; explanations have run from an increase in water temperature to pesticide use. But there is no question that Santos and the 1,300 other Long Island Sound lobstermen were out of work
Santos decided to try his hand at harvesting oysters. The western Long Island Sound oyster fishery produces what restaurateurs say is America’s best oyster. In the 1990s, oysters were surging back with the application of new aquaculture techniques, as were the value of landings.
Santos’s lawyer, Stephen R. Sheehan of Old Saybrook, said he tried to make a living by collecting small, young oysters from the coves and estuaries along the shore and selling them to the big wholesalers, who replanted them on offshore tracts of Sound bottom that they lease from the state.
“Despite Mr. Santos having a relentless work ethic, he has never been able to return to prior income levels to support both his nuclear family and his elderly mother in Portugal,” Sheehan told U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill.
Among other things, Sheehan said Santos’s house was in foreclosure and his widowed mother was unable to pay medical bills.
When Santos was unable to pay dockage fees at the Bluefish Cove Marina, where he kept his boat, federal prosecutors said marina owner John Magness, 71, of Southbury and marina employee Peter Albrecht, 70, of Norwalk told him he would be forgiven the debt if he sunk five abandoned boats that were impeding efforts by Magness to sell the business.
Santos agreed. The boats were stripped highly polluting items, towed after midnight beyond Penfield Reef south of Bridgeport and sunk. Santos plotted and recorded the locations, figuring the wrecks would attract fish and prove valuable to fishermen. He turned over the locations when approached by U.S. Coast guard investigators. State police divers have inspected one of the wrecks and determined it presents no hazard.
Based on his cooperation with authorities and no criminal history, Underhill sentenced Santos to a year of probation, fined him $500 and ordered him to perform a yet-to-be determined community service.
Magness and Albrecht are to be sentenced in the future.