Cowart Seafood, Inc. Officers Charged with Illegal Seafood Conspiracy and Firearms Violation
Gulfport, Miss – Lonnie M. Ray and Shelley H. Ray, the principal officers of Cowart Seafood, Inc., of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, have been indicted on charges which include conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, announced U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Davis; Acting Assistant Director Manny Antonaras with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Special Agent in Charge Louis Santiago with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Keith Davis with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, Office of Marine Patrol; and Resident Agent in Charge Jason Denham with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The Lacey Act makes it unlawful to sell in interstate commerce any fish taken in violation of state law.
Lonnie Ray, the president of Cowart Seafood, Inc., and Shelley Ray, the company’s secretary/treasurer, were also charged with individual Lacey Act violations, namely, the sale of red drum in interstate commerce to Kenney Seafood, Inc., Slidell, Louisiana on March 20, 2015, and the sale of red drum and spotted seatrout in interstate commerce to the New Orleans Fish House, New Orleans, Louisiana on May 12, 2015. In addition, Lonnie Ray was charged with illegal possession of a short-barreled shotgun. Both defendants made their initial appearance earlier today before the Honorable Robert H. Walker, United States Magistrate Judge, at the federal courthouse in Gulfport.
"The Department of Justice will continue to vigorously prosecute those individuals who jeopardize our nation’s fisheries by providing a market for illegally caught fish," said U.S. Attorney Davis. "Protecting our nation's fishing industry is essential for deterring those who would undermine the sustainable management of our fisheries resource."
"This case demonstrates the value of a combined investigative effort on the part of all agencies involved," said Acting Assistant Director Manny Antonaras with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In the indictment unsealed today, both defendants were charged with conspiring to violate the Lacey Act by selling fish to Louisiana seafood buyers that was taken in violation of Mississippi law. According to Mississippi law, seafood dealers are required to submit information about each seafood purchase from a commercial fisherman on a form known as a trip ticket that is provided by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources ("DMR"). Lonnie Ray and Shelley Ray are alleged to have violated this requirement by failing to report seafood purchases to DMR and by maintaining separate records of their actual seafood sales. Both defendants are also charged with buying fish from recreational fishermen in violation of state law. The indictment alleges that, on March 18, 2015, Lonnie Ray sold approximately 200 pounds of red drum to a wholesale seafood purchaser in Louisiana for shipment in interstate commerce. On May 12, 2015, he purchased approximately 75 pounds of red drum and 78 pounds of spotted seatrout but never asked for any information needed to complete a Mississippi state trip ticket, and no trip ticket for this purchase was ever submitted to DMR, as required by Mississippi law. Later that day, Lonnie M. Ray sold seven red drum and 33 spotted sea trout to a wholesale seafood purchaser in Louisiana for shipment in interstate commerce. On June 17, 2015, during the execution of a search warrant for the business and residence, agents found an Essex SX Gun Works 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun, having a barrel of less than l8 inches in length.
For the conspiracy and Lacey Act charges, both defendants face a maximum of five years of imprisonment on each count. In addition to possible imprisonment, the defendants face a maximum fine of $250,000, and three years of supervised release for each count. On the firearms count, Lonnie Ray faces a maximum of ten years of imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release.
United States Attorney Davis praised the efforts of the federal and state investigative agencies for their diligent work in the investigation of this matter.
The public is reminded that an indictment represents an accusation only and all defendants are entitled to a presumption of innocence.