The former president of the Baltimore County Watermen's Association pleaded guilty in federal court downtown yesterday to illegally taking as much as $70,000 worth of rockfish from the waters off the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground last year.
Daniel F. Beck, of Essex, conceded that he caught the fish using licenses allocated to his wife and daughter, then falsified catch information through his own check station licensed by the state Department of Natural Resources. But he insisted he did not know he was violating federal law.
"I knew I was in federal waters, but I didn't know it was a [federal] violation unless it was shipped out of Maryland," he told U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis. "No waterman knows that."
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, agreed and complained that Beck was "boxed in" and had no choice but to plead guilty because he couldn't afford the expense of a federal trial.
Authorities have "stretched this thing a long ways to make a federal case of it," he said.
"We don't condone what Danny did. If he did something wrong, he should have to pay the price, but it should be in Maryland court, not federal court."
Beck, one of the few full-time watermen in Baltimore County, could face a maximum of five years in jail and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced Sept. 26. He has agreed to pay a $100 fee, and federal prosecutors are asking that he be ordered to pay $5,000 in restitution to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Rockfish in Chesapeake Bay, once threatened with extinction, are strictly regulated under Maryland law.
Commercial watermen are allocated quotas and required to have their catch counted and weighed by a DNR representative at a certified station within three hours of returning to the dock. Federal law makes it a crime to catch, possess, transport or sell fish in violation of state laws in a "special maritime district," such as the waters off Aberdeen.
According to a statement of fact read during a hearing, Beck set up one of four pound nets he was allowed to use in federal waters off Aberdeen, with the permission of post officials, during the 1999-2000 rockfish season.
He used quotas allocated to others to illegally take and sell between $40,000 and $70,000 worth of rockfish, also known as striped bass, during that season and falsely reported the amount through his DNR licensed station.
"Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse," Assistant U.S. Attorney P. Michael Cunningham said after the hearing.
Beck, who admitted using his wife's and daughter's rockfish allocations, complained after the hearing that the state set him up by failing to monitor him more closely.
"I've had a check station for two years, and nobody ever asked to see my paperwork, or my allocation. If I was doing something to endanger the resource, they would have been here the first day they thought something was wrong."
He said he recently resigned his county watermen's association post after 20 years.
"Not that the members wanted me to, but I didn't feel at this moment that I should be representing them."
Capt. Mike Sewell, of the state Natural Resources Police, said the department began looking into Beck after hearing from federal officials at Aberdeen and from watermen who were "grumbling and complaining about the practices up there."
"It was a two-pronged investigation," Sewell said. "The federal agents kept him under surveillance and we monitored the paperwork."
He said the investigation remains open because he believes "there were quite a few others involved."