Virginia watermen used illegally submerged nets to fish out of season and altered and reused fish tags as part of the black market responsible for illegally catching millions of dollars worth of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River, according to affidavits for federal search warrants.
The court records, filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., present a picture of a much larger operation, one in which one waterman boasted to undercover officers of making $600,000 in one year of poaching and hinted at making bribes.
Investigators searched homes, businesses, vehicles and boats and seized records and checkbooks of commercial fishermen from the outer suburbs of Washington who are alleged to have supplied seafood wholesalers with oversized and out-of-season fish.
Last week, federal prosecutors announced that criminal complaints had been issued to five watermen - four of them from Maryland - two D.C fish dealers and an upscale Georgetown seafood market. More charges are expected as the investigation enters its final weeks.
The complaints are a signal that those accused intend to plead guilty. Two St. Mary's County watermen were indicted last fall for their part in the ring and have pleaded not guilty.
The fish market, Cannon Seafood Inc., which had customers from Washington's elite, has closed.
The search warrants, sought in August 2007, targeted Kenneth Lee Dent of Dumfries and Jerry Decatur and Jerry Decatur Jr. of Stafford, Va.
Dent told undercover officers that "nobody would say anything" about the illegal fish he caught and sold and that he had driven a load of illegal fish to an unnamed Baltimore location for sale.
The search warrant affidavits say the senior Decatur asked for, and received, a copy of the work schedule of Virginia Marine Police so he could avoid detection and that his son told a uniformed officer who was part of the probe that he might receive "a big, fat envelope" if he didn't write a ticket for illegal nets.
Federal prosecutors say all of the watermen falsified records to underreport their catches and abused a tagging system meant to keep track of the number of fish, the location of the catch and method used to catch them.
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.