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Maryland rockfish poacher could face federal prison sentence

William "Billy" Lednum, a fourth-generation Tilghman Island resident, has been voted to remain fire chief while residing in Federal prison for one year. He pled guilty to a major rockfish poaching operation. (Baltimore Sun video)

On Friday, two men with a fondness for Maryland's Tilghman Island will gather for a hearing in a wood-paneled federal courtroom in downtown Baltimore.

Seated at the bench will be Judge Richard D. Bennett, who has a painting of the Knapps Narrows channel in his conference room and speaks of his visits to the Eastern Shore community. Seated in front of him will be Michael D. Hayden Jr., a fourth-generation islander who has been convicted in a rockfish poaching conspiracy.

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At the hearing, Bennett will consider whether allegations that Hayden engaged in obstruction of justice, threatening others involved in the probe, should factor into his sentence. According to court documents, one man told investigators that Hayden called and said, "You rolled on me, [expletive], a man told me, so that's OK, I will take care of your ass."

Bennett will also determine whether Hayden should be sent to federal prison, like another conspirator, or receive a lesser punishment for a scheme that involved nearly $500,000 worth of rockfish.

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Whatever Bennett decides, the hearing will cap an investigation that began when state Natural Resources Police hauled up illegal nets near Tilghman Island on the opening day of the February 2011 rockfish season. The nets were packed with 10 tons of rockfish, a Chesapeake Bay delicacy also known as striped bass.

The huge illegal haul reverberated in Annapolis. Maryland regulators temporarily shut down the rockfish season and reduced quotas for all watermen. And the General Assembly enacted tougher penalties for poachers.

Hayden, 43, and his fishing partner, William J. "Billy" Lednum, 42, have pleaded guilty to violating federal fishery laws. Earlier this month, Lednum started serving a sentence of a year and a day at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Bennett has also has ordered the two men to pay a total of nearly $500,000 in restitution.

One of the watermen's helpers, Kent Sadler, 31, of Tilghman Island, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate federal fishing law and is serving a 30-day sentence on weekends at a local jail. Another helper, Lawrence "Danny" Murphy, 38, of neighboring St. Michaels, pleaded guilty to lesser charges and is on probation. Both have hefty fines and restitution to pay.

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The case has resonated on the island, a community with fewer than 800 residents where many believe Hayden and the others are being unfairly targeted. They say that state regulators have turned a deaf ear toward the watermen and that others have used illegal nets in the bay to catch Maryland's prized rockfish.

But Tilghman native David McQuay said in an interview that it's more complicated. "They went beyond what other watermen do," he said. "There are people who are upset, but don't want to speak out because it's such a small community. They've hurt watermen's reputations up and down the bay."

Just a few weeks ago, Hayden was driving over the Knapps Narrows drawbridge onto the island's main road when he saw Lednum's truck parked outside the local firehouse.

Lednum, who remains the chief of the volunteer fire company, was doing a final check of the trucks and paperwork as he prepared for prison. Both men agreed to talk about the case.

Hayden acknowledged that he broke fisheries laws but adamantly denied obstructing justice by threatening witnesses.

The pressure of the case and the pursuit by federal and state agents have triggered so much stress, Hayden said, that he now fishes primarily in the Atlantic Ocean.

"I've been harassed till no end," he said of Natural Resources Police, adding that the agency has issued alerts to local authorities about him. The agency confirmed that it sent such bulletins but would not discuss details given the ongoing court case.

Hayden denies that he was ever a danger to anyone.

U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson Wyn Hornbuckle declined to comment on the claim that many other watermen were also using illegal nets. "Hayden and Lednum are the only ones so far to have pleaded guilty to doing so," he said.

According to court documents, Hayden and Lednum's activity went far beyond the illegal nets.

Prosecutors said Hayden and Lednum obtained the rockfish through various illegal methods, falsified records to the state and trafficked the fish to markets in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware over a period that lasted at least from 2007 to 2011.

To do this, Hayden and Lednum enlisted the help of many in the industry, according to court records. They recruited personnel at "check-in stations" to falsify the numbers and weight of the rockfish they harvested. They paid other watermen to check in fish that exceeded their daily quota, and then bought them back, documents say.

One helper, whose name was not listed in court documents, told investigators, "There wasn't a day that went by on [Lednum's fishing] boat when I wasn't asked to do something illegal," according to court documents.

In recent years, Maryland officials have tried various strategies to deter illegal fishing.

Many state district courts began "DNR days," sessions set aside for natural resource violations. Officials were concerned that some judges had played down such violations, because they did not seem as consequential as crimes such as assault or driving under the influence. They hoped that if judges could focus on natural resource violations, they would issue tougher penalties.

Still, a review of fishery enforcement records reveals a long list of repeat offenders — including Lednum and Hayden, who received fines that dip below some traffic tickets. Hayden had 13 offenses since 1995, including several citations for illegally set gill nets; his average fine was $149, the equivalent of the wholesale price of about 10 average-sized rockfish. Lednum had eight offenses since 1995 with an average fine of $80.

In the aftermath of the poaching case, reforms have made it easier for regulators to pull watermen's' licenses. From 2005 to 2010, the state issued 13 license suspensions and revocations. Since then, there have been 70.

Yet Maryland still faces a challenge in staffing the waters with officers.

In 2008, a fisheries management task force reviewed policies at the request of the General Assembly. The group, which included several watermen, recommended increasing the number of enforcement officers and said the force should not fall below 400. Today, it is at 222 filled positions, according to the Natural Resources Police officials.

Hayden, meanwhile, has been preparing for a trip to prison. He doesn't expect to get a lesser sentence than his fishing partner.

In sentencing Lednum, judge Bennett said, "There can be no deterrence in this kind of case without a jail sentence."

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