The Wild, Wild Ches
The raw numbers are startling: more than 1 million pounds of illicit striped bass valued between $5 million and $7 million.
“This may be the largest case of its kind in U.S. history,” said Special Agent Kenneth Endress of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It began on the shores of the idyllic Chesapeake Bay, where sandy beaches melt effortlessly into crystal blue water. Here, fishing boats dock to unload their fare – oysters, blue crab, striped bass and more. Around the bay, fishing is a way of life, passed down through generations of waterman whose fortunes rise and fall on the slippery backs of today’s catch.
Out in the bay, lies the main spawning and nursery ground for striped bass, an integral part of both the local economy and the region’s marine ecosystem. In the mid-1980s, the near collapse of the population, due at least in part to over-fishing, led Maryland and Virginia to imposed moratoriums on bass fishing.
The moratoriums were lifted in 1991 and through monitoring, catch quotas and seasonal closings, the bay’s striped bass population has since rebounded. The successful restoration of the species is one of the conservation and fishing communities’ great recent triumphs, which made the call Special Agent Endress received in 2003 all the more disturbing.
On the other end of the phone that day was a Maryland Natural Resources Police Officer who had grown concerned about increasingly widespread abuses within the state’s commercial tagging and harvest reporting system and the perceived lack of judicial deterrence handed down by the state court system.
“A group of commercial fishermen were basically absorbing small fines handed down for illegal fishing as just another cost of doing business,” said Endress of the Service’s Annapolis, Md., Office of Law Enforcement. “What I began to find as we looked deeper was a ‘wild West’ mentality out on the Chesapeake and Potomac. The most effective tool in wildlife management – vigorous enforcement and compliance with the law – was lacking.”
So began the Interstate Watershed Task Force, a seven-year investigation into the illegal harvest, sale and purchase of striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River. The IWTF included agents from the Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, Virginia Marine Police and Maryland Natural Resources Police.
“I hear no evil, see no evil…”
In the spring of 2003, a man claiming to be Kenneth Dunstan, owner of Parks Seafood, placed a call to Golden Eye Seafood, a prominent wholesaler in St. Mary’s County, Virginia. After speaking with the owner, Robert Lumpkins, they set up a deal for Golden Eye to purchase 40 striped bass bought earlier in the day from a fisherman in Virginia.
But there was a catch. Many of the fish were longer than the state’s 28-inch limit. Would that be a problem?
“I hear no evil, see no evil,” an employee for Golden Eye Seafood said, according to court documents.
Unbeknownst to Golden Eye, Kenneth Dunstan was actually an undercover IWTF agent. His company, Parks Seafood, was a ruse.
The covert phase of the operation documented illegal commercial fishing operations in the bay and the river. The task force found a large-scale conspiracy involving an interconnected network of both commercial fishermen and seafood buyers designed to circumvent state fishing regulations.
A license to steal
Because of loopholes in Maryland’s tagging laws, the fishermen, check-in station and co-defendants, who all profited from the arrangement, referred to the state’s striped bass permit as a “license to steal.” The investigation initially targeted commercial fishing practices along the river and later spread to encompass the western shore of the bay.
“As the investigation progressed, and the true scope became apparent, we realized that this criminal conspiracy was one of the biggest of its kind the area had ever seen,” said Special Agent Endress.
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On Nov. 24, 2010, Profish Ltd., one of the largest seafood wholesalers in Washington D.C., was ordered to pay fines and restitution of nearly $900,000 for buying, selling and transporting illegally caught striped bass in violation of the Lacey Act. The company's vice-president and fish buyer were sentenced to 21 months and 15 months in prison, respectively. To date, 19 individuals and three fish wholesale companies have been prosecuted in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Nearly all defendants have opted to enter into plea deals with the government – a testament to the quality of the investigation.
Ultimately, the investigation disrupted a vast criminal conspiracy including the sale and purchase of more than 1 million pounds of striped bass with an estimated value of $5 million to $7 million.
But perhaps even more important than fines and prison sentences has been the investigation’s effect on Maryland’s fishing laws. As a result of the case, Maryland has initiated an overhaul of the state’s commercial fishing regulations. The state has increased fines and created further deterrents and has also changed a number of aspects of the tagging system to make widespread abuse more difficult and enforcement by state wildlife officers simpler.
The case has brought to light not only the challenges facing the Chesapeake Bay, but also the high level of public support for conservation efforts in the region.
“There has been an outpouring of public support and media attention,” said Special Agent Endress. “Combined with the changes to state commercial fishing regulations for all commercial marine species found in the bay, we’ve already seen a significant change in attitude in this realm of conservation and its proper management in the region.”
“I am grateful as well for the importance placed on these serious crimes by the U.S. Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Unit, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, and by the Federal Court system,” said Endress. “The Northeast Region’s Office of Law Enforcement should also be commended from Service Agents to supervisors and managers to administrative personnel. They have devoted their time and resources and believed this to be an important mission.”
In recognition of this successful investigation, members of the task force, including Special Agent Endress, were presented with a 2009 Annual Award of Excellence from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for their highly significant law enforcement contributions to the conservation of Atlantic coastal fisheries.
The Interstate Watershed Task Force highlights the impact made by cooperative law enforcement efforts – on the state and federal level - to protect and manage our treasured marine habitats and aquatic resources. The Chesapeake Bay watershed is an iconic part of the Atlantic seaboard and efforts of the Service’s
Office of Law Enforcement, together with our state and federal partners, aim to ensure that it remains that
way for generations to come.
January 23, 2012