WASHINGTON—Five St. Mary’s County, Md., commercial fisherman pleaded guilty today to illegally overfishing striped bass also known as rockfish, the Justice Department announced.
“Fishing limits in the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River are designed to protect the healthy sustainable population of striped bass and ensure a viable fishery up and down the eastern seaboard. Commercial fishermen who knowingly conceal their illegal activities, and who traffic in illegally harvested rockfish are undercutting an honest market and risking the continuation of the species,” said John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
“Most rockfish return from the Atlantic Ocean to the freshwater of the Chesapeake Bay to spawn,” said Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland. “If commercial fishermen obey the rules, we can all enjoy rockfish forever. If we allow overfishing, the rockfish population could be wiped out very quickly.”
According to their plea agreements, Thomas L. Crowder Jr. of Leonardtown, Md.; John W. Dean of Scotland, Md.; Charles Quade of Churchtown, Md.; Thomas L. Hallock of Catharpin, Va.; and Keith A. Collins of Deale, Md., are all commercial fisherman operating in or near St. Mary’s County, Md., and the surrounding waters of the Chesapeake Bay. As commercial fishermen in Maryland, they were each subject to a maximum quota in pounds of striped bass that they were allowed to harvest in a year and were also required to record each day’s harvest of striped bass on a permit allocation card issued by the state of Maryland. Each day’s harvest and its corresponding entry on the permit allocation were required to be verified by a Maryland designated check-in station. All striped bass caught by the defendants were required to be “tagged” with a plastic tag issued by the state. In addition to catching striped bass to fulfill their own quota, each defendant also entered into agreements to utilize the quota issued to other Maryland striped bass fishermen.
According to their statements of fact, from 2003 to 2007, Crowder, Dean, Quade, Hallock and Collins, with the help and assistance of a Maryland designated check-in station, falsely recorded the amount of striped bass that each harvested. In each year, the defendants failed to record some of the striped bass they caught. In addition, in each year the defendants recorded, and the check-in station certified on their Maryland permit allocation cards a lower weight of striped bass than was actually caught. The defendants and the check-in station operator would also falsely inflate on these records the actual number of fish harvested.
By under-reporting the weight of fish harvested, and over-reporting the number of fish taken, the records would make it appear that the defendants had failed to reach the maximum poundage quota for the year, but had nonetheless run out of tags. As a result, the state would issue additional tags that could be used by the defendants allowing them to catch striped bass above their maximum poundage quota amount, yet still have tags to place on those fish and fish that were never reported to Maryland as being harvested. In addition, Hallock, Quade, Dean and Collins falsely tagged striped bass, hiding the manner or location where they were caught. Hallock also fished out of season.
According to their plea agreements, Quade and Hallock further concealed the striped bass over-harvesting and under-reporting by having seafood wholesalers provide false receipts for their striped bass sales, claiming that the sales involved different species of fish.
Crowder, Dean, Quade, Hallock and Collins sold their illegal catch knowing that the fish would be sold to retail and wholesellers in other states. According to their plea agreements, the estimated fair market value of the fish involved in the illegal transactions for Crowder is $956,285; for Collins is between $600,000 and $750,000; for Hallock is $342,210; for Quade is $151,507; and for Dean is $100,267.
“This concerted federal and state investigation sheds light on a pattern of abuse that completely undermines the states’ ability to manage and set quotas for striped bass,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Sal Amato of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Region. “Violations of fishing laws rob future generations of this important Chesapeake Bay resource.”
“The Maryland Department of Natural Resources applauds and was happy to support these enforcement actions to preserve and protect our striped bass resource,” said DNR Secretary John R. Griffin. “Through the enforcement efforts of the Maryland Natural Resources Police and through innovative partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and our sister states, we are working to ensure that our waterways are used in a lawful manner which provides for enjoyment of these public trust resources for current and future generations.”
“This is a great example of a cooperative law enforcement initiative to protect our natural resources,” said Commissioner Steven G. Bowman of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which includes the Virginia Marine Police. “Trafficking in illegal rockfish is not a harmless offense, and the Virginia Marine Police take this quite seriously.”
In a related case, commercial fisherman Joseph Peter Nelson, Jr., of Great Mills, Md., and his father Joseph Peter Nelson, of Avenue, Md., were indicted on Oct. 15, 2008, for conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, and six substantive felony Lacey Act counts. The indictment also seeks forfeiture of vessels and vehicles allegedly used by the Nelsons in carrying out the offenses. A trial date has not been set.
Additionally, Cannon Seafood Inc., located in the District of Columbia, its owner and president Robert Moore Sr. of Falls Church, Va., and Robert Moore Jr. of Ashburn, Va., each pleaded guilty to one felony violation of the Lacey Act on Feb. 12, 2009 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The company faces fines and the individuals face fines and prison sentences according to their plea agreements. Their sentencing date has been set of May 8, 2009, at 9:30 A.M.
Each defendant faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The Nelsons also face five years in prison on the conspiracy charge. U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte has scheduled sentencing for Crowder and Dean on April 16, 2009; Quade and Hallock on April 17, 2009; and Collins on April 22, 2009, all beginning at 9:30 A.M.
Today’s guilty pleas are the result of the investigation by an interstate task force formed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Maryland Natural Resources Police and the Virginia Marine Police, Special Investigative Unit in 2003. The task force conducted undercover purchases and sales of striped bass in 2003, engaged in covert observation of commercial fishing operations in the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River area, and conducted detailed analysis of area striped bass catch reporting and commercial business sales records from 2003 through 2007. The investigation is continuing, and charges against others are possible.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacy Dawson Belf for the District of Maryland and Senior Trial Attorney Wayne Hettenbach of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.