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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Eastern District of North Carolina

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Another North Carolina Commercial Fishermen Pleads Guilty To Illegally Harvesting and Selling Atlantic Striped Bass

WILMINGTON – The United States Attorney’s Office announced that today in federal court, JOHN ROBERTS, 45, of Engelhard, pled guilty to federal charges regarding the illegal harvest and sale of Atlantic striped bass from federal waters off the coast of North Carolina during 2010.


According to the Indictments and information in the public records, 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 the harvesting of Atlantic Striped Bass in the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone (“EEZ”) which spans between 3 miles and 200 miles seaward of the U.S. Atlantic 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) and boarded the vessel. At the time of the boarding, the Lady Samaira was captained by Defendant Ellis Leon Gibbs, Jr.


Given the other commercial trawlers in the same area, NOAA conducted an analysis of electronic data and written reports from those vessels. Based on its review, NOAA determined that between January 20, 2010, and February 2, 2010, ROBERTS, then Captain of the Wonder Woman, a commercial trawler, harvested approximately 6,884 pounds of Atlantic Striped Bass from the EEZ, which he sold to a fish dealer in Engelhard, North Carolina. Additionally, on one of his fishing trips, ROBERTS exceeded the North Carolina catch limit for Atlantic Striped Bass, making multiple landings and filing multiple trip reports to make it appear that the fish had been caught during separate outings. The estimated fair market retail value of the 6,884 pounds of illegally harvested fish exceeds $55,000. Roberts also made false statements on his federal trip reports to conceal the true location of the harvest.


During the winter 2010 Atlantic striped bass ocean trawl season, it is estimated that over 90,000 pounds of North Carolina’s 160,000 ocean trawl quota were taken illegally from the EEZ.


Five 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, United States v. James Ralph Craddock, No. 2:15-CR-7-F, United States v. Joseph Howard Williams, No. 4:15-CR-2-F; United States v. Ellis Leon Gibbs, Jr., No. 4:14-CR-9-F, United States v. Dwayne J. Hopkins, 2:15-CR-8-F.


“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 prosecuted vigorously,” said U.S. Attorney John Stuart Bruce for the Eastern District of North Carolina. “Our office was pleased to partner with DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, NOAA, and other law enforcement agencies on these important cases.”


A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for the Court’s May 8th term of court, 2017. ROBERTS faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.


The 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 and Trial Attorney Lauren Steele of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section.

Updated February 8, 2017