Acknowledging that some federal fish police "overstepped the bounds of propriety and fairness", US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is returning almost $650,000 in fines to 11 fishermen or businesses, the majority in the Northeast.

The unusual move - and apology - comes after years of accusations by fishermen of excessive fines and intimidation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's office of Law Enforcement. Locke had appointed a special investigator last year to investigate 30 cases that a federal Inspector General's office report said appeared problematic.

"I expect our entire law enforcement program to uphold high standards and maintain the public's trust,'' Locke said today in a telephone press conference. The special investigator, Charles Swartwood III found 13 instances in the 30 of poor conduct or other problems. "Enforcement has to be fair, uniform and consistent," Locke said.

The 11 fishermen and businesses - many of them from Massachusetts - were in a meeting with NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco this afternoon and unable to be reached immediately.

But a findings report showed that Swartwood found several instances of fishermen being excessively fined or threatened to be fined more if they did not settle cases. In one instance, Swartwood found that the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction - where fishermen catches are sold was the subject "of selective enforcement by NOAA." He also found agents entered the auction house without a warrant.

In others he found that law enforcement agent put unfair pressure on a witness who was going to testify on another fisherman's behalf, inappropriately fined a fisherman too much for a first offense among other issues.