A St. Michaels fisherman received probation Friday for helping illegally harvest tens of thousands of pounds of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay, but must pay $40,000 in fines and restitution for what the sentencing judge called an "egregious" offense.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett told Lawrence Daniel Murphy he seriously considered jailing him, but went along with the prosecution's recommendation for probation because of Murphy's relatively minor role in a fish poaching conspiracy involving three other Eastern Shore watermen.
However, Bennett said he wanted to hit Murphy in the wallet to send a message to other watermen that illegal fishing is a "very, very serious matter." Striped bass, also known as rockfish, are Maryland's state fish.
Murphy, 37, worked as a helper aboard the Kristin Marie from 2007 to 2012 with Tilghman Island watermen Michael D. Hayden Jr. and William J. Lednum. They were caught in February 2011 trying to retrieve more than 20,000 pounds of striped bass using illegal, unmarked and unattended gill nets off the southern tip of Kent Island. Earlier, authorities charged, the men had illegally harvested more than 25,000 pounds of striped bass with a wholesale value of $66,000.
The judge ordered Murphy to pay a $10,000 fine, plus $30,000 in restitution to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for the fish he'd helped illegally harvest.
Murphy, who pleaded guilty in September, could have faced up to five years in prison for violating the Lacey Act, which protects fish and wildlife. His court-appointed lawyer, Nicholas Vitek, said Murphy earned only about $16,000 in wages from those illegal fishing trips and didn't share in the proceeeds the boat captains got from selling the fish.
But the judge insisted on penalizing Murphy more than that, noting that without helpers the boat captains couldn't have carried out their scheme.
Murphy said little during the sentencing hearing, beyond that he was "completely sorry" for what he had done.
The other three men charged in the fish poaching scheme also have pleaded guilty. Lednum, 41, was sentenced Wednesday to a year and a day in prison for his role and ordered to pay $40,000 in fines. He and Hayden also will be required to pay nearly $500,000 in restitution to Maryland DNR, the estimated wholesale value of all the fish authorities accused them of taking
Hayden's sentencing has been postponed until February, as the judge weighs whether to consider allegations Hayden attempted to intimidate the other fishermen not to cooperate with investigators.
A fourth defendant, Kent Conley Sadler, 31, of Tilghman Island, faces sentencing in January.