Two More North Carolina Commercial Fishermen Plead Guilty To Illegally Harvesting And Selling Atlantic Striped Bass
WILMINGTON – The United States Attorney’s Office announced that today in federal court, ELLIS LEON GIBBS, jR., 53, of Engelhard, and DWAYNE J. HOPKINS, 43, of Belhaven, 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. GIBBS also pled guilty to obstructing a boarding by the United States Coast Guard.
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.
When asked by the Boarding Team, GIBBS admitted that he was targeting Atlantic striped bass. When asked where he caught the fish, GIBBS showed the boarding team certain electronically-saved track lines from the vessel’s navigation computer. The track lines shown by GIBBS, however, were fishing tows he made in state waters (where the harvest of striped bass would have been lawful at the time) on February 13, 2009, almost a year prior to the February 9, 2010 boarding.
The Boarding Team counted 173 Atlantic striped bass, ranging in size from 36- to 41.5 inches in length, on the deck of the Lady Samaira. After completing its inspection, the Boarding Team allowed the Lady Samaira to proceed to port in Engelhard, North Carolina, where NOAA agents awaited to conduct the dockside investigation.
Once the vessel reached port, NOAA agents boarded. Agents, however, found only 99 striped bass aboard the vessel. The crew of the Lady Samaira had discarded 74 Atlantic striped bass prior to getting port. The conservative retail value of the missing fish, based upon fillet weight, was over $12,000.
When questioned by NOAA agents, GIBBS initially lied and told the agents that he had caught the fish within state waters. When confronted with the data from NOAA’s vessel monitoring system, GIBBS subsequently confessed to fishing nine miles offshore and signed a written statement of his admission.
A subsequent forensic analysis of the Lady Samaira’s vessel computer (which was seized during the investigation) identified that Gibbs had saved track lines on his computer indicating he fished for striped bass approximately 9 miles into the EEZ, which he then deleted from his system. Agents recovered the deleted evidence, as well as evidence from earlier trips where GIBBS had done the same – that is, harvesting striped bass from the EEZ and deleted his track lines.
Based on its investigation, NOAA determined that between January 27, 2009, and February 10, 2010, GIBBS, as Captain of the Lady Samaira, harvested more than 9,000 pounds of Atlantic Striped Bass from the EEZ, which he sold to a fish dealer in Engelhard, North Carolina. The retail market value of the fish illegally harvested and sold by GIBBS exceeded $72,000. To conceal the illegal harvests, GIBBS submitted false statements, under penalty of perjury, to NOAA, claiming he caught the fish in state waters.
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 29, 2009, and February 10, 2010, HOPKINS, then Captain of the Lady Carolyn, a commercial trawler, harvested more than 7,000 pounds of Atlantic Striped Bass from the EEZ, which he sold to fish dealers in Wanchese, North Carolina. The retail market value of the fish illegally harvested and sold by HOPKINS exceeded $55,000. To conceal the illegal harvests, HOPKINS submitted false statements, under penalty of perjury, to NOAA, claiming he caught the fish in state waters.
Three 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.
“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.”
"NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement is committed to ensuring a level playing field for the fishermen who play by the rules. When people cheat the system, it hurts those who follow the rules the most," said Eileen Sobeck, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries.
A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for the Court’s April 24th term of court, 2017. GIBBS faces a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment and/or a $500,000 fine. HOPKINS 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 Attorneys Shennie Patel and Shane Waller of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section.