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Commercial Fishing Vessel's Crewmember Pleads Guilty to Concealing Thousands of Pounds of Red Snapper Smuggled into the United States

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Tam Le, crewmember of the Galveston, Texas-based commercial fishing vessel Thanh Tam, pleaded guilty in federal court to concealing red snapper which was illegally imported into the United States, the Justice Department announced today. Le and other crewmembers caught the fish in violation of the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson–Stevens Act). Both Le and the Thanh Tam’s captain were indicted by a grand jury in Houston, Texas on November 23, 2005 for offenses surrounding the illegal importation of red snapper in 2004 and 2005. The concealment charge carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000.

On March 2, 2005, the Thanh Tam was boarded by special agents of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service Office for Law Enforcement as it was returning from a commercial fishing trip which began on February 22, 2005, before the red snapper commercial fishing season had officially opened. A hidden compartment that contained 5,641 pounds of red snapper was discovered beneath the vessel’s deck during a search of the vessel. More than 2,700 individual fish within the concealed compartment were less than the legal minimum size limit of 15 inches.

“This case involved egregious violations of catch limits for red snapper, which were enacted as part of a comprehensive system designed to protect our nation’s fish populations from illegal over-fishing,” said David M. Uhlmann, Chief of Environmental Crimes for the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division. “Over-fishing threatens the survival of fish populations across the globe, and the Justice Department is committed to vigorous prosecution of criminal fisheries violations like those that committed by the defendants in this case.”

Historically, the red snapper fishery has been severely over-fished due to its marketability. The Magnuson–Stevens Act regulates commercial fishing activities in the waters extending from the seaward boundary of each coastal state to 200 miles out to sea. In order to ensure red snapper stocks for the future, the Magnuson–Stevens Act’s fishery management plan for the Gulf of Mexico requires that legally-permitted commercial fishing vessels only harvest red snapper during an open season, maintain a maximum single trip limitation of 2,000 pounds and take only red snapper having a minimum length measurement of 15 inches.

Le’s sentencing is scheduled for May 19, 2006.

This investigation was conducted by special agents from the NOAA Fisheries Service Office for Law Enforcement with assistance provided by game wardens with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Georgiann Cerese of the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, Environmental Crimes Section.