Tidal Fish Forum banner
1 - 10 of 10 Posts

· Registered
7,513 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Watermen Charged in Illegal Striped Bass Sales
State, Federal Investigators Uncover Extensive Poaching Ring in Md. & Va.
By Candus Thomson
January 31, 2009

State and federal investigators have broken up a black market involving watermen and fish dealers who sold millions of dollars' worth of striped bass, illegally taken from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River, to shops and restaurants across the country, according to court documents filed in federal court this week.

Four Maryland watermen, one Virginia waterman, two Washington fish dealers and an upscale Georgetown fish market have been named in criminal complaints, and officials said more are expected. In addition, two St. Mary's County watermen were indicted by a federal grand jury last fall for their part in the poaching scheme, which law enforcement officials in Maryland and Virginia say is the largest ever.

The timing couldn't be worse for Maryland. On Monday, the region's fishing regulatory agency is to meet in Alexandria, Va., and state officials fear that the news could trigger harsh penalties that would cripple the multimillion-dollar commercial fishing industry in the Chesapeake Bay and drive up retail fish prices.

"These were fish pirates," said a high-ranking Virginia official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak about the case. "This was racketeering. Computers and records were seized. You're going to see some places go out of business."

The watermen and fish dealers have been charged under the Lacey Act, which prohibits the illegal taking of wildlife in one state for the purpose of selling it in another. Violations of the act carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, plus potential forfeiture of the boats and vehicles used.

Yesterday at U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, criminal complaints were filed against these watermen: Thomas L. Crowder Jr., 40, of Leonardtown; John W. Dean, 53, of Scotland; Charles Quade, 55, of Churchton; Keith Collins, 57, of Deale; and Thomas L. Hallock, 48, of Catharpin, Va.

"It's news to me," Dean said when reached by phone yesterday. "It may be me. I don't know."

"There have been a whole bunch of plea agreements, but I can't talk to you about it," Crowder said.

Law enforcement sources said individuals have admitted to poaching as much as $1 million worth of fish each over five years.

Annually, Maryland's 1,231 licensed watermen account for about 2 million pounds of the 7 million pounds of striped bass legally caught commercially on the Eastern Seaboard. The poaching scheme described in court documents and by sources means that the state vastly exceeded its annual striped bass quota for five years.

Maryland's watermen are required to report their catch at one of about 30 check stations, which are run by volunteers holding fish dealer licenses. Each fish must be tagged before it is unloaded from a boat. The check stations send the information - number of fish and weight of the catch - to the Department of Natural Resources in daily phone calls and file more comprehensive in weekly written reports.

But insufficient tag monitoring and allowing fish buyers to run check-in stations created a loophole that was exploited, Maryland officials acknowledge.

"This is a time to be sad about the lawlessness on the bay," said Maryland DNR Secretary John R. Griffin. "There's not a whole lot you can do to sugar-coat it. We toughened the rules last summer, but that obviously wasn't enough. It's become clear we need even more accountability."

The DNR is proposing regulations to tighten monitoring and enforcement of the commercial catch.

Andy Hughes, chairman of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, called the poaching "both alarming in its scope and tremendously disappointing in that it was not dealt with many years earlier."

"We can't bring back the striped bass that have been stolen from us, but we can learn a lesson," Hughes said.

The investigation began in 2003, when Maryland Natural Resources Police tipped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to poaching in the bay and the river. Here's how the scheme worked, according to sources and court documents:

Watermen, like Joseph Peter Nelson, 69, and Joseph Peter Nelson Jr., 45, of St. Mary's County, received additional tags by filing false reports with the state about the number and weight of the striped bass they caught illegally in Maryland waters.

After reaching his Potomac River quota, the younger Nelson allegedly began using his tags designated for Chesapeake Bay use. From 2003 to 2006, he also used the commercial license of a waterman referred to in the indictment as "J.R." to secure more tags and falsify that catch.

Instead of carrying out transactions dockside, the indictment says, undercover officers from Virginia Marine Police posing as wholesale buyers took delivery of the fish from the Nelsons or unnamed men listed as unindicted co-conspirators at a private home in St. Mary's County, a walk-in cooler, a parking lot and near a bridge on a county road.

Other watermen joined the scheme, creating a supply of striped bass so vast that poachers and dealers brought workers into fish packing houses after hours to process the catch, sources say.

Both Nelsons have pleaded not guilty and contend that the statements they made to Maryland officers were made before they were read their rights. Louis Fireison, lawyer for the younger Nelson, said he could not discuss the case at this point. Lisa Lunt, lawyer for the elder Nelson, declined to comment.

To catch buyers, undercover officers peddled undersized, oversized and out-of-season striped bass.

Court documents show that for four years, beginning in April 2003, Robert Moore and Robert Moore Jr., who own Cannon Seafood Inc., in Washington, sold illegal striped bass and helped other unnamed people buy and sell fish.

Griffin said he hopes to see more joint enforcement efforts on the bay, an idea seconded by Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney for Maryland.

"This is not the sort of case you can prove by looking at a fish once it's on a plate in a restaurant or somebody's kitchen. You have to actually be there when the fish are caught and when they're sold at the first stage," Rosenstein said. "I hope that this will be a model for other similar investigations because it's really critical that we join forces to pursue these kinds of cases."

DNR officials worry that this poaching scheme might eventually lead to Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission sanctions.

ASMFC Commissioner Pat Augustine of New York predicted that his fellow commissioners "will demand some form of punishment when this hits the table ... that could shut down commercial striped bass fishing in the Chesapeake. Maryland needs to come to the table eating humble pie."

Kevin Smith
Weekend Mistress
Stripers Forever, CVSFA

· Registered
40 Posts
The Department of Justice sent out a press release where 7 men were arrested for illegal fishing.

• Thomas L. Crowder Jr. of Leonardtown, Md.
• John W. Dean of Scotland, Md.
• Charles Quade of Churchtown, Md.
• Thomas L. Hallock of Catharpin, Va.
• Keith A. Collins of Deale, Md.
• Robert Moore Sr. of Falls Church, Va.
• Robert Moore Jr. of Ashburn, Va.

I believe the last 2 were not accused of illegal fishing but were the buyers.

None of these have a commercial card in Virginia.
You must have a commercial card in order to set any gear in the water.
A Thomas L. Crowder does but he is Sr. not Jr.
A Virginia resident cannot set a net in Maryland at all so if Halloc set a net in either state that is illegal as well.
Although the Virginia State Waterman's Association might sometimes disagree with certain regulations we expect waterman to abide by them.

What infuriates me as much as anything is the fact that this had been investigated since 2003. If arrest had been made sooner with outrageously stiff fines then 100's of thousands of pounds would not have been caught. A message would have been sent.

Remember that none of these were commercial fishermen, at least not in Virginia. The 90% of Virginia's watermen that fish legally condemn the 10% that don't. Strict enforcement of existing regulations is needed not new regulations
It is kind of like gun laws. You don't need more gun laws. You need to enforce the ones you have. Does the criminal abide by gun laws? Same is true for a crooked watermen. He only hurts the good one.

Commercial and recreation fishermen will always disagree on some issues but there are other issues that we need to come together on.

A prefect example is the blue crab fishery management plan. There is a statute for one.

§ 28.2-203.1. Blue crab fishery management plan.
A. The Commission shall prepare, in consultation with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, other educational institutions and representatives of industry and interested parties, and then implement a blue crab fishery management plan. The plan shall build upon previously developed plans, including consideration of plans adopted by the multi-state Chesapeake Bay Program, and shall be consistent with the standards for fishery conservation and management set out in § 28.2-203. The plan shall be designed to reverse any fishing practices, environmental stress and habitat deterioration negatively impacting the short and long term viability and sustainability of the crab stock in Virginia waters. The Commission shall consider the economic impact to Virginia of proposed legislative and regulatory changes. The protection of spawning stock, nursery areas and habitat shall be of prime consideration in the plan. At a minimum the plan shall include, but not be limited to:
1. Measures to protect and enhance crab habitat and nursery areas.
2. Suggested measures to assure water quality conditions necessary for blue crab survival and reproduction, including identification of areas where water quality is such that onshore mechanisms for water quality protection are needed to protect and restore crab populations and habitat areas.
3. A review of current and proposed regulations and restrictions relating to: (i) winter dredging; (ii) commercial licensing; (iii) spawning stock; (iv) nursing sanctuaries; (v) submerged aquatic vegetation; (vi) peeler and soft shell crabs; (vii) size limits; (viii) the use of cull rings and the use of crab pots; and (ix) time of day restrictions and closed seasons.
4. Recommended legislative changes if necessary to implement the plan.
B. The Commission shall, on or before December 1 of each year, report to the Governor and the General Assembly on the progress and implementation of the blue crab fisheries management plan.

VMRC has only concentrated on the orange items and not at all on the red items.

If this bay and its resources are going to be saved then we need to demand that the red items be addressed and ENFORCED. A healthy bay will take care of itself.

Remember this. If we fight among ourselves and each blame the other for a lack of abundance then the real issues get lost.

I'm old enough to remember a time that the bay was bountiful and that time was before pollution.

· Premium Member
26,897 Posts
I'm betting it took so long because they wanted to get the guys at the top who were buying the illegal fish.

Busting an illegal fisherman does not stop it.Busting the buyer will.If no one is buying- there is no market for illegal fish.

Just wait until the IRS gets into this - millions of dollars that I'll bet were not reported :eek: - somebody is in deep sh*t.

· Registered
336 Posts
I feel for the honest watermen out there who abide by the rules; hats off. Unfortunately, this is a "black eye" for the commercial industry. Maybe striped bass should be designated as a "game fish" in both Md. and Va., then enforcement of the rules would become less difficult.

· Registered
231 Posts
One other thing to remember is that in todays legal system, law enforcement/prosecution has to have overwhelming evidence in most cases to get more than a slap on the wrist. One of the alleged criminals already said there are plea agreements being discussed.

· Registered
7,513 Posts
Discussion Starter · #8 ·
Our Legal System

It is also unfortunate that the court system is so overloaded, enforcement has to negotiate with criminals to keep it out of court.

Hopefully the laws & fines will get stiffer, so the stripers are better protected.

Weekend Mistress

· Registered
40 Posts
I feel for the honest watermen out there who abide by the rules; hats off. Unfortunately, this is a "black eye" for the commercial industry. Maybe striped bass should be designated as a "game fish" in both Md. and Va., then enforcement of the rules would become less difficult.
It's a black eye for both user groups. I've been told this is just the beginning and it involves Registered Commercial watermen and recreation fishermen selling to restaurants (apparently there are a lot).

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is having their winter meeting. Started today and ends Thursday.

At 2PM today the Stripe Bass Management Board was to meet. I know personally that prior to this incident there was a good chance the quota was going to be raised.

My personal feelings are that this won't happen now. I've called a committee member and left a message to find out if enforcement report on this.
1 - 10 of 10 Posts
This is an older thread, you may not receive a response, and could be reviving an old thread. Please consider creating a new thread.