Poaching investigation yields witness tampering charges

Federal prosecutors say Tilghman Island man charged with trying to manipulate witness testimony in investigation of alleged poaching of striped bass. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / September 18, 2013)

A Tilghman Island commercial fisherman has been charged with witness tampering and intimidation in a federal investigation into alleged poaching of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay, prosecutors announced Wednesday.

Michael D. Hayden, Jr., 41,was arrested Tuesday, according to a news release issued by U.S. attorney Rod J. Rosenstein.

Prosecutors say agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Natural Resources Police learned while investigating alleged striped bass poaching that Hayden had allegedly tried to manipulate some witnesses' testimony to a grand jury while trying to prevent others from testifying at all.  The criminal complaint against Hayden also alleges he threatened to retaliate against a potential witness he believed to be cooperating with investigators.

According to an affidavit by a federal wildlife agent, Hayden quizzed one person subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury about what he would say. The unidentified witness allegedly said he would stick to the story Hayden allegedly already told investigators when they caught him with striped bass aboard one of his boats - that the fishing pole he'd used to catch the fish had fallen overboard.

Poaching has been a recurring issue with striped bass, known as rockfish in the bay, which are valued by both commercial and recreational fishermen. An eight-year sting investigation by federal and state agencies resulted in convictions of 19 men by 2010 for poaching and selling 1.6 milion pounds of hte fish on the black market.

The next year, state natural resources police found more than 12 tons of striped bass in several illegally set nets off Kent Island. No one was arrested then, though authorities did close the commercial fishing season early and raided the home of one fisherman. Later that year, the state cited 60  recreational fishermen for striped bass violations.

If convicted, Hayden faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison on each of four counts of witness tampering and witness retaliation. He is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Baltimore later today.

Hayden was previously cited in 2007 for not having his tidal fishing license with him while fishing, according to a news release by the state Natural Resources police.