Federal and State law enforcement officers working in Maryland and Virginia have uncovered a striped bass poaching ring that involved thousands of fish and millions of dollars. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working with officers from the Virginia Marine Patrol and Maryland Natural Resources Police, brought charges against a half-dozen watermen and a fish dealer for keeping false records and illegally catching, transporting, and selling striped bass (rockfish) that were taken from Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. The violations of the Lacey Act are a federal felony that could cost those involved up to $250,000 and five years in jail as well as forfeiture of vessels and vehicles used in the operation.
Commercial fishing for striped bass is strictly regulated and commercial fishermen are closely monitored. Watermen who target striped bass are given plastic tags to place in each rockfish that is caught. When the commercial fisherman sells his catch, the purchaser is responsible for reporting the size and number of fish to state authorities.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, undercover officers in Maryland and Virginia, posing as fish wholesalers, bought millions of dollars worth of illegally harvested rockfish. Investigators allege that the defendants exceeded their quota of striped bass by failing to check in the fish that they caught and falsely inflating the number of fish that they sold in order to obtain additional tags. The watermen are also charged with placing Maryland tags on fish that were not caught in the state’s regulated waters and placing tags that falsely indicated that the fish were caught with hook and line.
The actions of these watermen may affect all commercial fishermen who target striped bass in Maryland and Virginia. Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commissioner Pat Augustine of New York told the Baltimore Sun that the case, “could shut down commercial striped bass fishing in the Chesapeake.”
The Justice Department reported that the investigation is ongoing and more charges against other commercial fishermen are expected.