John H. Cross III (Cross) and John Cross Fisheries Inc. (Cross Fisheries) were sentenced yesterday in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for trafficking in illegally transported and sold lake trout, announced Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and United States Attorney Andrew Birge for the Western District of Michigan. Cross Fisheries was also sentenced for making false records about whitefish purchases.
The two defendants previously had pled guilty to one misdemeanor count of violating the Lacey Act by knowingly selling and attempting to sell in interstate commerce lake trout, when they should have known the fish was possessed and sold in violation of underlying State law, specifically Mich. Comp. Laws, Sections 324.47333 and 324.47319 which prohibit any person from marketing, possessing, or offering for sale any fish illegally taken from the relevant waters. Cross Fisheries also pled guilty to one felony count of violating the Lacey Act by knowingly making a false record and account of whitefish that was intended to be sold and transported in interstate commerce.
Cross was ordered to serve 12 months in prison – intermittently during a five year term of probation – for his role in trafficking lake trout. Cross Fisheries was sentenced to five years’ probation. Both defendants were ordered to pay $1,032,132.00 in restitution, jointly and severally, to the National Fish Hatcheries, which stock Lake Michigan with lake trout. In addition, Cross Fisheries was ordered to create and implement a compliance plan to prevent such violations from reoccurring.
“Purchasing illegally caught fish for interstate sale and then covering up the source of those fish by falsifying records is cheating, plain and simple — and where discovered, the Justice Department will seek to punish such conduct,” said Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark. “For three years, Cross Fisheries harmed law-abiding competitors and the American taxpayers who fund the stocking of Lake Michigan with trout, but that conduct has now come to an end.”
“The federally funded stocking of fish and the regulations designed to preserve these natural and communal resources were simply treated as an opportunity for extra profit here and in other cases stemming from Operation Fishing for Funds. This was essentially stealing from competitors, the government, and ultimately the future,” commented U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge.
“We are pleased to see this long-term illegal commercialization come to an end. This type of large-scale wildlife trafficking can significantly impact the sustainability of the resources we are charged to protect. This is especially relevant because we have been working for years to restore the Great Lakes fishery,” said Edward Grace, Assistant Director of the Office of Law Enforcement.
According to documents filed in court, between September 2011 and October 2013, Cross and Cross Fisheries repeatedly purchased lake trout from “Fisherman A,” who Defendants knew and should have known to be a tribal fisherman who fished from a boat that was converted to trap net gear at taxpayers’ expense and thus could not lawfully harvest lake trout. Cross and Cross Fisheries made and submitted records and accounts of these purchases stating that the seller was “Fisherman B” (who Defendants knew and should have known to be a licensed gillnet fisherman who could legally harvest lake trout).
Between approximately September 2011 and October 2013, Cross Fisheries, through its officers and employees, including Cross, made approximately forty-two purchases of lake trout from “Fisherman A,” totaling approximately 48,498 pounds, all of which was falsely reported by Cross Fisheries on its Wholesale Fish Dealer’s Purchase Records as being from “Fisherman B’s” gillnet license, and subsequently offered for sale and sold by Cross and others in interstate commerce.
This sentencing is one of the final pending cases arising from Operation Fishing for Funds, an undercover operation run for approximately two years by Special Agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). This undercover operation investigated the illegal harvest and sale of fish (primarily walleye and trout) taken from the Great Lakes. As part of the investigation, USFWS agents established and operated an undercover wholesale fish business in Baraga, Michigan, named Upper Peninsula North Fish Company (UPNFC). UPNFC bought and sold fish wholesale from individuals across the region, and also sold fish retail.
The Operation has resulted in twenty-one convictions, seven in tribal courts and fourteen in federal courts. To date, over $1.6 million in total restitution has been ordered to the USFWS National Fish Hatcheries and tribal fish hatcheries; this amount reflects the funds needed to restock hatchery fingerlings necessary to replace the illegally harvested fish.
The Lacey Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 3371-3378, prohibits trafficking in fish and wildlife or plants taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of underlying federal, state, foreign, or Indian tribal law. The Lacey Act also prohibits making or submitting a false label, record, or account of fish, wildlife, or plant that has been or is intended to be transported in interstate or foreign commence.
Operation Fishing for Funds was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement with assistance of the Michigan and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources. The prosecutions were handled by prosecutors from the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, with assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Western and Eastern Districts of Michigan, and the Eastern District of Wisconsin, as well as The Grand Traverse Band of the Ottawa & Chippewa Indians, the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the Sault St. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.