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Press Release

North Carolina Commercial Fisherman Pleads Guilty to Illegally Harvesting and Selling Atlantic Striped Bass

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

WILMINGTON – The United States Attorney’s Office announced that today in federal court, DEWEY W. WILLIS, JR., 39, of Newport 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.

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), 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 its review, NOAA determined that between January 31, 2010, and February 3, 2010, WILLIS, then Captain of the Helen W. Smith, a commercial trawler, harvested more than 3,000 pounds of Atlantic Striped Bass, which he sold to fish dealers in Wanchese and Beaufort, North Carolina.

“The illegal poaching of striped bass by commercial fishermen has a major impact on the survival of this iconic fish resource and has the potential to devastate the future livelihoods of law abiding commercial fishermen,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.  “Today’s plea agreement demonstrates the department’s dedication to pursuing those who fail to respect the law and fail to adequately monitor their harvest to stay within legal limits.”

  “Our office was pleased to partner with the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice in this significant case,” said U.S. Attorney John Stuart Bruce.  “This prosecution makes clear that efforts to circumvent laws regulating commercial fishing will be enforced vigorously.”

According to the Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission, “striped bass have formed the basis of one of the most important fisheries on the Atlantic coast for centuries.  Early records recount their abundance as being so great at one time they were used to fertilize fields.  However, overfishing and poor environmental conditions lead to the collapse of the fishery in the 1980s.”

 In 2015, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, along with other states, reduced by twenty-five percent the catch limits of Atlantic Striped Bass in the Atlantic Ocean and Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River areas, citing a decline in stocks.  The division cited 2013 surveys revealing that the female spawning stock has been steadily declining.  The reduction applies to all commercial and recreational striped bass fishing for all the eastern coastal states.

A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for December 12, 2016.

WILLIS 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 Assistant U.S. Attorney Banumathi Rangarajan and Trial Attorney Shennie Patel of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section.

Updated September 26, 2016