Another Commercial Fisherman Pleads Guilty to Illegally Harvesting and Selling Atlantic Striped Bass
The Justice Department announced that today in federal court, Joseph Howard Williams, 61, of Brunswick, Georgia, pleaded guilty to federal charges regarding the illegal harvest and sale of Atlantic Striped Bass from federal waters off the coast of North Carolina in 2010.
According to information in the public record, in February 2010, a Special Agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) received information that commercial trawlers were illegally fishing for Atlantic Striped Bass in federal waters off the coast of North Carolina. Since 1990, there has been a ban on harvesting Atlantic Striped Bass from the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which includes waters located three to 200 miles seaward of the U.S. coastline. Upon receiving the information, NOAA engaged the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard. A single patrol vessel in the area intercepted one of 17 commercial trawlers in the EEZ, the fishing vessel Lady Samaira, boarded the vessel and found 173 Atlantic Striped Bass. The captain later admitted to taking the fish from the EEZ.
Given the other commercial trawlers in the same area, NOAA conducted an analysis of electronic data and written reports from those vessels. Based on the review, NOAA determined that between Jan. 27, 2009, and Jan. 29, 2009, Williams, as the Captain of the fishing vessel Joann B, harvested approximately 2,476 pounds of Atlantic Striped Bass from the EEZ, which he later sold to a seafood dealer in Engelhard, North Carolina. The investigation further revealed that between Feb. 1, 2010, and Dec. 18, 2010, Williams, harvested at least an additional 8,635 pounds of Atlantic Striped Bass from the EEZ, which he later sold to the same dealer in Engelhard, North Carolina. Williams’s email traffic during the relevant time frame corroborated the illegal harvesting activities in the EEZ and the use of code words to conceal the true species of the illegal catch. Williams also made false statements on his federal trip reports to conceal the true location of the harvest. The estimated fair market retail value of the 11,111 pounds of illegally harvested fish exceeds $88,000.
Two other commercial fisherman previously entered guilty pleas for conduct uncovered by the same investigation. United States v. Dewey W. Willis, Jr., No. 2:15-CR-3-F, and United States v. James Ralph Craddock, No. 2:15-CR-7-F.
“Violating the fishing ban is illegal and can undermine the sustainability of an important natural resource and disadvantage the many law abiding fishermen who depend upon this fishery,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Today’s plea agreement demonstrates the department’s commitment to pursuing those who violate the laws enacted to protect and conserve important marine resources.”
“Our office is pleased to partner with the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice in these significant cases,” said U.S. Attorney John Stuart Bruce for the Eastern District of North Carolina. “These prosecutions make clear that efforts to circumvent laws regulating commercial fishing -- which are implemented to sustain the species for the benefit of future generations -- will be enforced vigorously.”
A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for the March 27, 2017, term of court. Williams faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and forfeiture of the all of the fish illegally harvested and the equipment used to commit the offense, including the commercial trawler, and all gear, electronics and other harvesting and sorting equipment on the trawler.
The overall investigation was conducted by the Law Enforcement Offices of NOAA, with assistance of the Investigative Service from the U.S. Coast Guard, the North Carolina Marine Patrol and the Virginia Marine Police. This case is being prosecuted by Senior Litigation Counsel Banumathi Rangarajan of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina and Trial Attorney Lauren Steele of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section.