A fish poaching case that began in February 2011 with a discovery of mysterious, illegally set nets full of tens of thousands of pounds of striped bass off Kent Island is finally coming to a close.
Two Tilghman Island watermen pleaded guilty Friday in U.S. District Court to illegally taking 185,925 pounds of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay.
Michael D. Hayden, 41, and William J. Lednum, 42, admitted to selling the striped bass for $498,293 through a ring they operated between 2007 and 2011, according to court documents.
They employed numerous schemes to fish illegally, including casting nets overnight and fishing after the season was closed, according to the plea agreement. They also pleaded guilty to fishing beyond their vessel limits and recruiting others to report their fish for them. They sold the fish to wholesalers in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.
The case began when the Maryland Department of Natural Resources found the illegal anchored nets off Kent Island on the eastern side of the Bay Bridge three years ago.
During the investigation, Hayden allegedly threatened to harm witnesses cooperating with the government.
"You rolled on me, [expletive], a man told me so, that's OK, I will take care of your [expletive]," he told one witness, according to court documents.
Hayden and Lednum are to pay between $498,293 and $929,625 in restitution to the state plus forfeit 80 percent of the value of the boat "Kristin Marie" they used for their operation. They also each face a $250,000 fine and five years in prison.
"These defendants admitted to systematically plundering the Chesapeake Bay of an important and protected natural resource, and at the expense of the many honest fishermen who play by the rules," said Sam Hirsch, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.
A federal grand jury in Baltimore indicted the watermen last November for criminal conspiracy involving the illegal harvesting and interstate sale of striped bass.
Co-defendant Kent Conley Sadler, 31, also of Tilghman Island, previously pleaded guilty in the conspiracy and is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 21.
Hayden and Lednum are scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 4 and 5, respectively.
The striped bass, also known as rockfish, is Maryland's official state fish and most important commercial and recreational fish species. It is one of several species fighting to stay healthy amid pollution and fishing issues. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is considering placing new restrictions on the striped bass catch because of high mortality rates among females, which are on the brink of being overfished.
Enforcement actions such as the Hayden case are important for the overall management of the species, according to Harry Hornick, a biologist who heads the striped bass management program at the DNR. "It sends a message that the state is serious about management and poaching."
But sending such a big message is difficult. A 2010 conviction of 19 men for poaching and selling 1.6 million pounds of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay took a team of federal and state agencies eight years to investigate. More common are smaller penalties. Last year, Maryland Natural Resources Police issued 156 citations to individuals for fishing undersized striped bass.