GREENBELT -One by one, five watermen admitted yesterday in federal court that they poached more than $2.1 million worth of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River as part of a black market.
With wives and relatives watching, the men - four from Maryland and one from Virginia - pleaded guilty to falsifying catch records to exceed their annual quotas and selling illegal fish to dealers who supplied them to shops and restaurants across the country.
Individually, they also admitted to crimes ranging from fishing out of season to conspiring with wholesalers to lie about the species they caught to cover up their activity. One waterman acknowledged that in addition to his own permit, he used the permit and quota that "belonged to a Maryland [Department of Natural Resources] striped bass biologist."
The five watermen acknowledged that they knew selling illegally caught fish across state lines was a crime. The maximum penalty for a violation of the Lacey Act is a $250,000 fine, up to five years in prison followed by three years of supervised probation, plus forfeiture of boats and vehicles used.
Sentencing will be in mid-April.
The five-year investigation by state and federal agents continues, and more charges are expected.
It took U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte nearly two hours to hear the confessions and listen to prosecutor Wayne Hettenbach of the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section outline the specifics of each case:
Thomas Crowder Jr., 40, of Leonardtown admitted that he conspired with two state commercial check-in stations to not report or under-report his catches, which had a fair-market value of $956,285. In addition to his own striped bass permit and quota, he used those belonging to 14 other watermen.
Keith Collins, 57, of Deale pleaded guilty to using 22 different permits to poach striped bass valued between $600,000 and $750,000. He also admitted to setting nets in the bay during the spring spawning season - when commercial fishing is closed - to collect "thousands of pounds of striped bass" and hold them until it was legal to sell them.
Thomas Hallock, 48, of Catharpin, Va., acknowledged that he trucked illegal fish to Cannon Seafood in Georgetown and that the wholesaler gave him phony receipts listing other species and different prices to conceal that they were trafficking in striped bass. Hallock, who controlled seven permits, stole fish with a market value of $342,210. Cannon Seafood and its owners pleaded guilty last week in federal court in Washington to buying striped bass from Hallock and others. They agreed to pay fines totaling $150,000 and make $53,000 in restitution.
Charles Quade, 56, of Churchton had six permits and took fish worth $151,507.
John Dean, 53, of Scotland pleaded guilty to catching and selling fish valued at $100,267. He used four permits, one held by the unnamed state biologist.
DNR Deputy Secretary Eric Schwaab said only a handful of employees hold commercial licenses, but the agency is working on a policy to end the practice, especially for the Fisheries Service and Natural Resources Police, "to prevent the appearance of ethical concerns."
In their plea agreements, each waterman implicated Golden Eye Seafood, a St. Mary's County fish dealer that also acted as a Maryland commercial seafood check-in station until August 2007, despite having received two dozen citations for fish, oyster and crab violations. The watermen said they relied on owner Robert Lumpkins and his employees to certify their false monthly reports and send them to DNR.
According to search warrant affidavits, undercover officers sold out-of-season striped bass to Lumpkins on numerous occasions in 2003 and 2004. Although officers searched his business and boats, Lumpkins has not been charged.
Messitte ordered all five watermen to surrender their passports and released all but Quade on personal recognizance. Quade will be supervised by a probation officer.