A Tilghman Island waterman was sentenced Friday to 18 months in prison followed by six months of home detention for poaching tens of thousands of pounds of rockfish from the Chesapeake Bay.
U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett said Michael D. Hayden, Jr., 43, received the longest sentence of four men convicted in the poaching scheme because he had obstructed justice by threatening a witness.
"The scale of this conspiracy was massive," said federal prosecutor Todd Gleason. "It coincides with a steady decline of striped bass. We are heading back to the levels near the moratorium, thanks in no small part to Mr. Hayden."
Hayden will be subject to three years of supervised release and will have to pay $40,000 in fines. He and co-defendant William J. "Billy" Lednum, 42, also of Tilghman Island, are jointly responsible for nearly $500,000 in restitution as well.
Hayden and Lednum admitted to running an operation between 2007 and 2011 that involved taking rockfish, also called striped bass, on their boats Integrity and Kristin Marie beyond legal fishing limits, at illegal times, using illegal gear and covering everything up with falsified records. They poached at least 185,925 pounds of rockfish that they sold to wholesale operations in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland for nearly half a million dollars.
"I got greedy when I was fishing," Hayden said at Friday's sentencing hearing. "I no longer want to take part in rockfish fishery. I would take it back if I could."
Witness Jeffrey Brian Morris of Denton testified that he operated the station where Hayden and Lednum checked in their fish. Morris admitted to falsifying documents with Hayden, saying, "It was industry practice."
Morris said Hayden called to threaten him after he found out Morris was cooperating with government agents.
Morris testified that Hayden "said he knew I had rolled and he would get me." Morris said he told his wife and daughter to get out of their house for the night and Morris stayed away on a business trip. He said he didn't call police, thinking that Hayden would eventually "cool off."
Sgt. Roy Rafter of the Maryland Natural Resources Police testified that he initially found the illegally set rockfish nets near Bloody Point lighthouse on Jan. 31, 2011, after a tip from an anonymous text message. Rafter orchestrated surveillance to determine who would pull up the nets.
The next morning, however, Hayden, Lednum and two helpers arrived in the Kristin Marie and shone a spotlight on the hidden patrol boat, foiling the surveillance. Later, Rafter said, Hayden tried to place new nets on top of the illegal nets to prevent police from confiscating them.
Hayden will have until April 22 to turn himself over to authorities. The judge recommended that he serve his prison sentence at Fort Dix, N.J., where Lednum is serving a sentence of a year and a day.
The watermen's helpers, Lawrence "Danny" Murphy, 38, of St. Michaels and Kent Conley Sadler, 31, of Tilghman Island, also have pleaded guilty to their part of the conspiracy. Murphy is on probation and Sadler is serving a 30-day sentence on the weekends at a local jail.
The courtroom was packed with Eastern Shore residents, and several had written the judge to support Hayden, a friend and relative.
Bennett told the group that he knew none of them needed to be lectured about the importance of taking care of the bay. But he compared watermen to the captains of a football team who are held to a greater standard.
Bennett mentioned the ripple effect of the poaching, which led to a temporary suspension of the rockfish season and cost watermen income. It also led Maryland legislators to enact tougher poaching laws.
"You say it was greed, and this was greed," Bennett told Hayden. The judge acknowledged Hayden's generosity in the community, where he has volunteered as a firefighter and has regularly hosted those in need in his home for months at a time.
The judge added, "The very compassion you show those in the community has to reflect toward the rest of the bay."