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Press Release

Commercial Fisherman Pleads Guilty to Illegally Harvesting and Selling Atlantic Striped Bass and to Federal Tax Violations

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of North Carolina

RALEIGH – The United States Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina John Stuart Bruce announced that today in federal court, GASTON L. SAUNDERS, JR., 53, of Wanchese, North Carolina, pled guilty to federal charges regarding the illegal harvest and sale of Atlantic striped bass from federal waters off the coast of North Carolina. SAUNDERS also plead guilty to one count of federal tax evasion and three counts of failure to file federal taxes. In the plea agreement, the defendant agreed to pay restitution in the amount of $544,946.35 payable to the Internal Revenue Service.


According to the indictments and superseding criminal information in the public records in related cases, 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. Officers found 173 illegally harvested Atlanic Striped Bass on board.


Given the other commercial trawlers in the same area, NOAA conducted an analysis of electronic data and written reports from those vessels. The electronic mail retrieved, which included captains sharing LORAN coordinates and Buoy Numbers where they successfully harvested Atlantic striped bass, combined with the vessel monitoring track lines, illustrated a concerted effort by various commercial fisherman to illegal target and harvest that species from the EEZ. The review also revealed multiple years of illegal harvests by commercial trawlers.


Based on its review, NOAA determined that between January 19, 2009, and February 9, 2010, SAUNDERS, then Captain of the Little Sammie, a commercial trawler, harvested approximately 13,613 pounds of Atlantic striped bass from the EEZ, which he sold to a fish dealer in Engelhard, North Carolina. The estimated fair market retail value of the 13,613 pounds of illegally harvested fish exceeds $108,000. SAUNDERS also submitted false statements to NOAA for two of three fishing trips, falsely claiming he caught the fish in state waters.


Further investigation revealed that despite earning a substantial income from his commercial fishing, SAUNDERS failed to file a tax return since 1999. Starting in 2010, and in order to avoid IRS’ collection efforts, SAUNDERS directed his wife to deposit his fishing income into their joint bank account, then withdraw the money the same day and use those funds to purchase cashier’s checks, primarily in denominations of less than $10,000 each. His wife would place the cashier’s checks in a safe deposit box, cashing them over the years as the couple needed money. Between October 2010 and August 2014, SAUNDERS caused his wife to deposit at least 20 fishing income checks totally $432,419.20 and convert the money to cashier’s checks. In total, SAUNDERS and his wife failed to pay $544,946.35 in federal taxes.


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


Eleven other commercial fishermen previously entered guilty pleas for conduct uncovered by the same investigation. United States v. Dewey W. Willis, Jr., No. 2:15-CR-3-BO, United States v. James Ralph Craddock, No. 2:15-CR-7-BO, United States v. Joseph Howard Williams, No. 4:15-CR-2-BO; United States v. Ellis Leon Gibbs, Jr., No. 4:14-CR-9-BO, United States v. Dwayne J. Hopkins, 2:15-CR-8-BO; United States v. John Roberts¸ No. 4:15-CR-3-BO; United States v. David Saunders, Jr., No. 2:15-CR-2-B0; United States v. Michael Potter, No. 2:15-CR-6-BO; United States v. Bryan H. Daniels, No. 4:14-CR-11-BO; United States v. Stephen Daniels, No. 2:15-CR-4-BO; and United States v. James K. Lewis, Jr., No. 4:14-CR-10-BO.


“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,” said U.S. Attorney John Stuart Bruce for the Eastern District of North Carolina. “We are pleased to partner with our colleagues in DOJ’s Environmental Crimes Section to prosecute these important cases.”


Manny Antonaras, Deputy Speical Agent in Charge for NOAA’s Southeast Division’s Office of Law Enforcement stated, "NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement is committed to ensuring a level playing field for law abiding fishermen and coastal communities that rely upon our nation’s living marine resources. When people cheat the system, it hurts those who follow the rules the most."


“Tax evasion is not a victimless crime. Saunders’ attempt to evade tax by hiding income and failing to file tax returns is a theft from the American public who are paying their fair share,” said Thomas J. Holloman, III, Special Agent in Charge, IRS Criminal Investigation. “We are proud to work with our law enforcement partners to investigate and prosecute individuals who attempt to enrich themselves by fraudulent means.”


A sentencing hearing will be set at a later date. GASTON SAUNDERS faces a total maximum sentence of 13 years imprisonment and/or a $800,000 fine.


The Lacey Act 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. The tax investigation was conducted by the Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation. This case is being prosecuted by Senior Litigation Counsel Banumathi Rangarajan of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina, and Trial Attorney Shennie Patel of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section.

Updated August 4, 2017