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American Fishermen Caught in Net of Regulations

For 37 years the waters off the coast of Mass. were a way of life for fishermen Bill Lee. Then, without warning - it all changed.

"NOAA took a career that I enjoyed and put me out of business," Lee said. "And laughed all the way to the bank."

NOAA is short for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - the federal agency that oversees the $3.9 billion dollar fishing industry.

CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian reports in 2009 NOAA fined Lee $19,000 for catching about 20 extra codfish - nearly three years after he caught them. A fine, he says, that destroyed his one-man operation.

"They just took it away," Lee said.

Now dozens of New England fishermen charge their livelihood is at risk. Sinking under the weight of 700 pages of confusing federal regulations.

"You almost have to have a college degree to understand what's really going on in this industry," said fisherman Richard Burgess.

Burgess said NOAA told him he had to pay $27,000 because of a problem with his paperwork.

"They just said if I tried to fight it and it goes in front of one of their judges - that I most likely - the fine will be between $120,000-$140,000," Burgess said.

An investigation by the Commerce Department's Inspector General found the regulations were "unduly complicated." Federal agents "overzealous" and "abusive." Excessive fines including one for $270,000 for "administrative errors."

"We're honest hard-working people," Burgess said. "And we have been treated as common criminals."

The inspector general found the $30 million the fishermen paid in fines went to a NOAA fund with no oversight. The fund was used by regulators to buy more cars (202) than agents (172,) and for trips to fishing conferences in exotic locales such as Australia, Malaysia and Norway. It was also used to purchase a $300,000 "luxury vessel" used by government employees for "fishing trips."

And according to this memo obtained by CBS News while under investigation NOAA officials in Washington had a "shredding party" destroying garbage bags full of documents.

The shredding truck pulled up right outside NOAA's enforcement headquarters, where the agency's top cop later admitted he destroyed 75 percent to 80 percent of his total files.

An investigation found the shredding violated five federal regulations but found no evidence of obstructing justice. The man was later removed from his job but remains at NOAA as an analyst, still making a six figure salary.

Eric Schwaab is the new head of Fisheries at NOAA. He came to the agency last February from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources armed with a mandate for change.

"We have worked hard over the last year to identify those problems and address those problems and to rebuild that trusting and productive relationship that we need with fishermen," Schwaab said.

For some, like Sen. Charles Grassley, change can't come soon enough.

"I want to make sure that heads roll," Sen. Grassley said. "Because you know in a bureaucracy, if heads don't roll, you don't change behavior.

Now a judge is reviewing at least 31 cases of fishermen caught up in the government's net to see if some of the fines should be returned.

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