Two more fishermen plead guilty to Lacey Act violations in vast striped bass conspiracy
SEAFOOD.COM NEWS [M2 Communications] - April 13, 2009 - WASHINGTON, Two commercial fisherman pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., to violations of the Lacey Act, the federal law that prohibits individuals from transporting, selling or buying illegally harvested fish, in this case striped bass or rockfish, the Justice Department announced.
Jerry Decatur Sr. of Stafford, Va., pleaded guilty to a one count criminal information for illegally taking and over-harvesting striped bass. Additionally, Kenneth Dent of Dumfries, Va., pleaded guilty to a one count criminal information for trafficking illegally taken striped bass.
According to documents filed with the court, on at least 13 occasions between 2004 through 2007, Decatur Sr. illegally harvested more than 10,000 pounds of striped bass from the Potomac River. The commercial fisherman fished out of season, kept over-sized fish or used nets that violated applicable regulations. He then sold the catch to two fish wholesalers in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he failed to affix tags to the majority of the striped bass that he caught thereby exceeding their limit by thousands of pounds. In April and May 2003 through 2007, Decatur harvested more than 65,000 beyond his limit. The fair market retail value of the over- and illegally- harvested rockfish was in excess of $329,000.
According to the documents, on multiple occasions, Dent sold hundreds of pounds of rockfish that were illegally harvested or tagged to an undercover special agent with the Virginia Marine Police, who told Dent that the fish were being transported to Pennsylvania. On one occasion, Dent illegally harvested 400 pounds of fish from Virginia tributaries of the Potomac River and sold it to the undercover agent for $990. He knowingly tagged much of the fish with incorrect tags to exceed his limit of Virigina-caught fish. The majority of these fish were also not within the legal size limit. On a second occasion, Dent sold the undercover agent 430 pounds of rockfish for $1000 that were larger than the legal size limit. On a third occasion, he sold the agent 480 pounds of fish for $1,375. All of these fish were more than the legal size limit. The fair market retail value of the transactions was in excess of $5,000. Further Dent illegally sold the undercover agent 100 striped bass tags despite a prohibition against private sales.
Decatur Sr. and Dent both face maximum penalties of up to five years in prison, a fine of $250,000 and three years supervised release for the Lacey Act violations.
Today's guilty pleas are the result of the investigation by an interstate task force formed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Maryland Natural Resources Police and the Virginia Marine Police, Special Investigative Unit in 2003. The task force conducted undercover purchases and sales of striped bass in 2003, engaged in covert observation of commercial fishing operations in the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River area, and conducted detailed analysis of area striped bass catch reporting and commercial business sales records from 2003 through 2007. The investigation is continuing, and charges against others are possible.
As part of the investigation and prosecution to date, a total of 11 individuals and one company have been charged including today's defendants. Nine of those have pleaded guilty to wildlife crimes for their involvement in illegally harvesting and trafficking in striped bass. Two fishermen, Joseph Peter Nelson Jr., of Great Mills, Md., and his father Joseph Peter Nelson, of Avenue, Md., are awaiting trial, and one other commercial fisherman is awaiting arraignment and entry of a plea.