State and federal investigators have broken up a black market involving watermen and fish dealers who sold millions of dollars' worth of striped bass, illegally taken from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River, to shops and restaurants across the country, according to court documents filed in federal court this week.
Four Maryland watermen, one Virginia waterman, two Washington fish dealers and an upscale Georgetown fish market have been named in criminal complaints, and officials said more are expected. In addition, two St. Mary's County watermen were indicted by a federal grand jury last fall for their part in the poaching scheme, which law enforcement officials in Maryland and Virginia say is the largest ever.
The timing couldn't be worse for Maryland. On Monday, the region's fishing regulatory agency is to meet in Alexandria, Va., and state officials fear that the news could trigger harsh penalties that would cripple the multimillion-dollar commercial fishing industry in the Chesapeake Bay and drive up retail fish prices.
"These were fish pirates," said a high-ranking Virginia official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak about the case. "This was racketeering. Computers and records were seized. You're going to see some places go out of business."
The watermen and fish dealers have been charged under the Lacey Act, which prohibits the illegal taking of wildlife in one state for the purpose of selling it in another. Violations of the act carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, plus potential forfeiture of the boats and vehicles used.
Yesterday at U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, criminal complaints were filed against these watermen: Thomas L. Crowder Jr., 40, of Leonardtown; John W. Dean, 53, of Scotland; Charles Quade, 55, of Churchton; Keith Collins, 57, of Deale; and Thomas L. Hallock, 48, of Catharpin, Va.
"It's news to me," Dean said when reached by phone yesterday. "It may be me. I don't know."
"There have been a whole bunch of plea agreements, but I can't talk to you about it," Crowder said.
Law enforcement sources said individuals have admitted to poaching as much as $1 million worth of fish each over five years.
Annually, Maryland's 1,231 licensed watermen account for about 2 million pounds of the 7 million pounds of striped bass legally caught commercially on the Eastern Seaboard. The poaching scheme described in court documents and by sources means that the state vastly exceeded its annual striped bass quota for five years.
Maryland's watermen are required to report their catch at one of about 30 check stations, which are run by volunteers holding fish dealer licenses. Each fish must be tagged before it is unloaded from a boat. The check stations send the information - number of fish and weight of the catch - to the Department of Natural Resources in daily phone calls and file more comprehensive in weekly written reports.
But insufficient tag monitoring and allowing fish buyers to run check-in stations created a loophole that was exploited, Maryland officials acknowledge.
"This is a time to be sad about the lawlessness on the bay," said Maryland DNR Secretary John R. Griffin. "There's not a whole lot you can do to sugar-coat it. We toughened the rules last summer, but that obviously wasn't enough. It's become clear we need even more accountability."
The DNR is proposing regulations to tighten monitoring and enforcement of the commercial catch.
Andy Hughes, chairman of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, called the poaching "both alarming in its scope and tremendously disappointing in that it was not dealt with many years earlier."
"We can't bring back the striped bass that have been stolen from us, but we can learn a lesson," Hughes said.
The investigation began in 2003, when Maryland Natural Resources Police tipped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to poaching in the bay and the river. Here's how the scheme worked, according to sources and court documents:
Watermen, like Joseph Peter Nelson, 69, and Joseph Peter Nelson Jr., 45, of St. Mary's County, received additional tags by filing false reports with the state about the number and weight of the striped bass they caught illegally in Maryland waters.
After reaching his Potomac River quota, the younger Nelson allegedly began using his tags designated for Chesapeake Bay use. From 2003 to 2006, he also used the commercial license of a waterman referred to in the indictment as "J.R." to secure more tags and falsify that catch.
Instead of carrying out transactions dockside, the indictment says, undercover officers from Virginia Marine Police posing as wholesale buyers took delivery of the fish from the Nelsons or unnamed men listed as unindicted co-conspirators at a private home in St. Mary's County, a walk-in cooler, a parking lot and near a bridge on a county road.
Other watermen joined the scheme, creating a supply of striped bass so vast that poachers and dealers brought workers into fish packing houses after hours to process the catch, sources say.
Both Nelsons have pleaded not guilty and contend that the statements they made to Maryland officers were made before they were read their rights. Louis Fireison, lawyer for the younger Nelson, said he could not discuss the case at this point. Lisa Lunt, lawyer for the elder Nelson, declined to comment.
To catch buyers, undercover officers peddled undersized, oversized and out-of-season striped bass.
Court documents show that for four years, beginning in April 2003, Robert Moore and Robert Moore Jr., who own Cannon Seafood Inc., in Washington, sold illegal striped bass and helped other unnamed people buy and sell fish.
Griffin said he hopes to see more joint enforcement efforts on the bay, an idea seconded by Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney for Maryland.
"This is not the sort of case you can prove by looking at a fish once it's on a plate in a restaurant or somebody's kitchen. You have to actually be there when the fish are caught and when they're sold at the first stage," Rosenstein said. "I hope that this will be a model for other similar investigations because it's really critical that we join forces to pursue these kinds of cases."
DNR officials worry that this poaching scheme might eventually lead to Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission sanctions.
ASMFC Commissioner Pat Augustine of New York predicted that his fellow commissioners "will demand some form of punishment when this hits the table ... that could shut down commercial striped bass fishing in the Chesapeake. Maryland needs to come to the table eating humble pie."