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Real justice at last for rockfish scofflaws

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By now most every newspaper reader along the middle Atlantic states has heard about the commercial fishermen who robbed the Chesapeake Bay of striped bass to the tune of millions of dollars over a period of several years and who participated in a scheme to sell illegally caught rockfish on the black market, overfishing their quota and under-reporting their catches.

In February of this year commercial fishermen from Southern Maryland admitted that between 2003 and 2007 they illegally netted stripers. During each of those years they failed to record some of their catches and also recorded lower weight totals of fish that actually were caught.

By under-reporting the weight and/or numbers of harvested fish weights, the records made it look as if the defendants had failed to reach their maximum poundage quota fore the year. Consequently, the state would issue additional tags for fish that could be used, which resulted in the catch of more striped bass that now were above the maximum poundage quota.

All that is well-known, but what the scofflaws didn’t know is that they played right into the hands of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Maryland Natural Resources Police and the Virginia Marine Police. The crooks were hoodwinked by the law, so to speak. The whole deal went down without a hitch: the fish netters selling their ill-gotten bounty to the lawmen in a number of instances and the police finally casting a wide “net” of their own over the fish thieves.

They were nailed with the goods, and no lawyer could save these clients out of the trouble they were in. Unlike local Maryland county judges who in the past have handed out pattycake fines and milquetoast judgments to commercial fishermen who flaunted the law, this time it wasn’t up to one of the judges in the state’s good ol’ boy network. No, this time the lawbreakers had to face a judge in the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., and pretty soon tough sentences became the order of the day.

In the waning days of April, John W. Dean, of Scotland, Md., was sentenced to one month in prison, followed by five months of home detention. He was fined $1,000 and was ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution. The court papers showed that Dean was responsible for overharvesting over $100,000 worth of striped bass.

Then came Thomas Crowder, Jr., of Leonardtown, Md., who was sentenced to serve 15 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. He was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and $96,250 in restitution. Crowder was charged with overharvesting rockfish that were worth nearly one million dollars.

Charles Quade, of Churchtown, Md., was sent to the pokey for five months, followed by five months home detention that is part of three years of supervised release. He was fined $1,000 and $15,000 in restitution. Quade was said to have been responsible for illegally catching $151,500 worth of rockfish. The restitution money from each of the sentenced watermen will be paid to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, which has established a Chesapeake Bay Rockfish Restoration Account. The fines from the three convicted fish netters will go to the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund. The fund is being handled by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

There are still more to be tried. It remains to be seen how kindly the legal system will look down upon them. The Golden Eye Seafood company and owner, Robert Lumpkins, of St. Mary’s County, Md., face four felony counts, including conspiracy to violate the federal Lacey Act and three substantive violations of the Act.

Three additional commercial fishermen have pleaded guilty and they will be sentenced later in summer and a Washington D.C. seafood wholesaler, Cannon Seafood, and its owner, Robert Moore, Sr., and his son, Robert Moore, Jr., will be sentenced this week in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The prosecuting Assistant U.S. Attorney, Stacy Dawson Belf, and Senior Trial Attorney, Wayne Hettenbach of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section, deserve a round of applause for the diligent work done in this case. Here’s hoping some of the state judges that hear the cases of commercial fish violators pick up on the federal case and begin to dole out similarly tough sentences.

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