WASHINGTON – Hoang Nguyen, captain of the Galveston, Texas-based commercial fishing vessel Thanh Tam, was sentenced to 30 months in prison and three years of supervised release for illegally importing red snapper into the United States, the Justice Department announced today. Tam Le, a crewmember of the Thanh Tam, was sentenced to 21 months in prison and three years of supervised release for concealing red snapper which was illegally imported into the United States.
Nguyen, Le and other crewmembers caught and retained the fish in violation of the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson–Stevens Act). Both Nguyen and Le were indicted by a grand jury in Houston on Nov. 23, 2005 for offenses surrounding the illegal importation of red snapper in 2004 and 2005. Both defendants entered guilty pleas, earlier in 2006, to smuggling the fish in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 545.
“Commercial fishers who illegally smuggle large quantities of fish in hidden compartments aboard their fishing vessels should expect to be investigated and prosecuted when they are caught,” said David M. Uhlmann, Chief of Environmental Crimes for the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division. “The sentence imposed in this case should help deter other commercial fishers from illegally harvesting desirable fish populations in the Gulf of Mexico.”
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 Feb. 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. The total market value of the red snapper involved in the 2004 and 2005 offenses was $48,088.63. Pursuant to his plea, Nguyen agreed to forfeit his interest in the fish which, due to their perishable nature, were previously sold by NOAA in accordance with federal regulations.
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.
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 was prosecuted by Trial Attorney Georgiann Cerese of the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, Environmental Crimes Section.