WASHINGTON — Ocean Pro Ltd. dba Profish, one of the District of Columbia’s largest seafood wholesalers, as well as its vice-president and its fish buyer, were sentenced on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., for their roles in a more than decade-long conspiracy to illegally harvest striped bass from the Potomac River, the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland announced today.
On Nov. 24, 2010, Timothy Lydon of Bethesda, Md., a part owner as well as officer in the company, was sentenced to 21 months in prison and ordered to pay $60,000 fine. Benjamin Clough of Graysonville, Md., a fish-buyer for Profish, was sentenced to 15 months in prison and ordered to pay a $7,500 fine. Profish was sentenced to three years probation, ordered to pay a fine of $575,000, restitution in the amount of $300,000 (for which both Lydon and Clough are also jointly liable) and a special assessment of $5,000. All the defendants’ fines will go to the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, and restitution will be paid to the Commonwealth of Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the State of Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Also sentenced today was Gordon Jett, of Fredericksburg, Va., the last of seven fishermen who supplied the striped bass that Lydon, Clough and Profish knew was illegal.
"When fisherman and fish wholesalers do not comply with the law, they imperil the entire fishery and adversely impact livelihoods of those in the fishing industry who abide by the law, and reap an impermissible economic advantage through their non-compliance," said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. "The Chesapeake Bay watershed is a national treasure, and the striped bass fishery is an important resource that we must protect from plunder for our enjoyment and that of future generations."
"If commercial fishermen and wholesalers obey the rules, we can all enjoy rockfish forever," said U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein. "If they don’t, the rockfish population could be wiped out very quickly. This case sends a message that we are serious about protecting the rockfish population in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
On July 1, 2010, following a five-week jury trial, the Lydon, Clough and Profish were found guilty of purchasing illegally harvested striped bass, known locally as rockfish. The rockfish had been illegally harvested from the Potomac River in Virginia and Maryland from 1995 through 2007. All the defendants were convicted of conspiracy and violations of the Lacey Act, which prohibits individuals or corporations from transporting, selling or buying fish and wildlife harvested illegally. Clough was also convicted of making a false statement when he denied purchasing the illegally harvested fish to law enforcement during the investigation.
Jett, who, along with a number of other fishermen testified at trial, plead guilty a Lacey Act felony for his role in harvesting rockfish illegally. Jett admitted that in 2007 he commercially caught from the Potomac River in Virginia 14,850 pounds of rockfish that were either over size limits designed to protect spawning fish, were untagged, or were falsely tagged. Profish, Lydon and Clough then bought those illegal rockfish. Jett was sentenced today to five months in prison, five months of home of detention and to pay $4,572 in restitution.
"This cooperative investigation exposed a pattern of abuse that undermines state fishing laws in the name of profit and at the expense of the majority of fisherman who make their living lawfully," said Special Agent in Charge Sal Amato of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Region. "Enforcing striped bass quotas ensures that future generations can continue to make their living on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay."
The sentencings last week and today cap a multi-state investigation and the prosecutions of illegal commercial striped bass harvest and sales that began in 2003 in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and resulted in the conviction of 19 individuals in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, in addition to three corporate fish wholesalers.
Combined, the individuals have been sentenced to more than 140 months in prison, and total fines and restitution have exceeded $1,361,000. The cases revealed that in excess of one million pounds of striped bass worth more than $5 million were illegally harvested and sold through a number of schemes that involved the failure to affix required tags to the fish, fishing during closed season, falsely affixing required tags, taking fish in violations of size restrictions, falsifying required harvest records, and creating false receipts and records to conceal the harvests and sales from state regulators. The exploitation revealed during the investigation also contributed to Maryland revising portions of its striped bass regulations last year.
The evidence at the trial proved that Profish and Lydon began buying striped bass from Virginia fishermen fishing on the Potomac River in 1995. Lydon and Profish agreed to buy striped bass that they knew was illegally harvested by seven fishermen between 1995 and 2007. Clough joined Profish in 2001, and he continued to knowingly purchase the illegally harvested striped bass through 2007. In total, the defendants purchased more than 212,700 pounds of striped bass illegally harvested from Maryland and Virginia waters, with a fair market retail value more than $875,000. Evidence also showed that they altered records regarding their striped bass purchases, and changed records indicating the harvest date on shellfish to make it appear that they were harvested more recently than they were. Profish, Lydon and Clough also bought commercially caught striped bass more than the applicable size limit during the spawning season and did not have the required tags affixed. This allowed commercial fishermen to catch and sell more striped bass than they were allowed, and to catch and sell protected spawning striped bass from 1995 through 2007.
Fishermen are given a quota of striped bass that they are allowed to catch each year. The fishermen are issued plastic tags that they are required to affix to every striped bass harvested. In addition, during certain times of the spring, commercial striped bass fishing is prohibited, or, if allowed, a maximum striped bass size limit is imposed that prohibits the harvest of striped bass over that size. The quota restrictions and tagging requirements are designed to prevent the over-harvest of striped bass, and the seasonal closing and size restrictions are designed to protect striped bass while they are spawning and to protect the larger, sexually mature and more productive spawning fish. These restrictions were implemented in the early 1990s following the crash of the striped bass fishery in the 1980s, which resulted in a moratorium on commercial striped bass harvest from 1985 to 1990.
In early spring each year, striped bass (Morone saxatilis), enter the estuary or river where they were born to spawn, and then return to ocean waters to live, migrating along the coastline. Fish spawned from the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem contribute the greatest number of striped bass to the Atlantic coastal fishery, and the commercial fishery for Atlantic coastal striped bass is based primarily on migrations of fish born in the Chesapeake Bay area. Striped bass do not die after spawning. They may live up to 30 years and reach 50 pounds or more. The population of coastal Atlantic striped bass depends heavily upon the capability of older, larger, female striped bass to successfully reproduce.
The charges are a 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.
These cases were prosecuted by Wayne D. Hettenbach and Kevin M. Cassidy of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section and Stacy Belf of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland.