- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2009

ST. GEORGE ISLAND, Md. | The day before Robert Lumpkins went before a judge to find out whether he would have to go to prison, he walked among the graves of old friends and relatives not far from where the Potomac River empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

The small Methodist cemetery here is full of watermen who, much as Lumpkins once did, caught and sold blue crabs and oysters for a living.

“I knew all these people and they knew me, and I’m just like them except it’s a different time and age,” he said. “I just said I was sorry if I did anything to hurt their reputation or the reputation of watermen of the whole state.”

Lumpkins, 55, a well-known fisherman and crab dealer in southern Maryland, is among more than a dozen people charged in a long-running federal and state investigation into the black-market trade of illegally caught striped bass, or rockfish, the signature fish of the Chesapeake Bay.

The case is the biggest of its kind along the Eastern Seaboard.

Among the defendants, authorities estimate a combined haul of least 600,000 pounds of fish worth millions of dollars from 2003 to 2007. By the pound, that’s about one-fourth of the total yearly quota for Maryland’s commercial rockfish fishermen combined.

The investigation, which is ongoing, provides a window into the celebrated past and precarious future of Bay watermen and into the prized fish that have been getting so many into trouble lately.

Some question why the government spent so long building a case, instead of simply charging the men after the first few undercover purchases of fish that were caught out of season or too big under commercial fishing rules. And they blame a regulatory system that seemed to make it easier for poaching to go unchecked.

But prosecutors say they followed the evidence wherever it led. The first months of sting operations gave way to many more months of tedious work piecing together thousands of receipts, fishing tags, witness statements and other records. After a while, the case, if not the defendants, resembled a white-collar fraud prosecution.

Many of those charged were well-known second- or third-generation watermen.

When Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary for President Reagan, was researching a book on the Chesapeake, he turned to fisherman and Bay expert Keith Collins of Deale, Md. Collins was sentenced to 13 months in prison for his role in the case.

Sentenced to one month in prison, fisherman John Dean, 53, never had cause to travel north of LaPlata in southern Maryland until the day he had to attend a briefing at the Justice Department in Washington.

“We walked into the Department of Justice and sat at that long table,” Dean’s lawyer, Jim Zafiropulos, later recalled, “and we were sweating profusely, and realizing at that point in time the profound nature of this prosecution.”

For Lumpkins, that realization likely came Sept. 14, when the Justice Department filed papers saying he should get at least five years in prison, arguing he “played a substantial and central role in this massive illegal harvesting scheme.”

Lumpkins pleaded guilty. But he didn’t agree with the government’s estimates on the amount of fish or money involved. He hired a lawyer in hopes of getting probation and, maybe, home detention. He argued that nobody got rich in the case and he wasn’t the only wholesaler involved. In fact, two wholesalers from Washington were sentenced to probation.

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