- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Five area commercial fishermen were charged last week with illegally netting and selling striped bass and a seafood dealer and his employee were cited for buying the rockfish over a five-year period. As a result, Pat Augustine, the New York member of the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission, told the Baltimore Sun his fellow commissioners will demand punishment for the perpetrators - a kind of punishment that might shut down the entire commercial striper fishery in the Chesapeake Bay.

When the ASMFC meets, the New York commissioner said, “Maryland needs to come to the table eating humble pie.”

The Justice Department said hundreds of thousands of pounds of rockfish were removed from the Chesapeake Bay and the tidal Potomac River from 2003 through 2007, according to a PR Newswire article.

The charges came after an interstate task force, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and including the Maryland Natural Resources Police and the Virginia Marine Police, conducted undercover purchases and sales of rockfish as far back as 2003. The task force then engaged in covert observation of the watermen’s operations in the Bay and Potomac River and also conducted an analysis of the area’s rockfish catch reports and commercial sales records in the five-year period.

The individuals and company in question have been charged with violating the federal Lacey Act, which prohibits anyone from keeping false records and from transporting, selling or buying illegally harvested fish or wildlife. Violations of the act can result in a maximum five-year prison sentence and a fine of up $250,000. There’s also the possibility that vessels and vehicles used during the commission of such offenses will have to be forfeited.

The task force says the watermen - four from southern Maryland and one from Virginia - transported and sold striped bass knowing they had falsely recorded on their permit allocation cards the numbers and weights of the fish and failed to keep an accurate record of when the fish were harvested, suggesting that many were netted after legal hours or when the season was entirely closed and that they kept undersized or oversized striped bass. The company being charged is Cannon Seafood Inc. of the District; Robert Moore Sr. is listed as the owner.

The reason the case has taken so long to develop is that the task force knew the illegal activities were large in scope, most likely involving more people than have been charged thus far. Additional arrests probably will occur in the weeks to come.

“We can’t bring back the striped bass that have been stolen from us, but we can learn a lesson,” said Andy Hughes, the chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland. “The challenge for elected and appointed leaders in Maryland now is the future. Our leaders must design and implement an enforceable plan to assure that crime of this nature does not occur again in all fisheries, not just striped bass.”

The conservation association commended the federal government for its comprehensive investigation.

“For years, the commercial fishery has been seen as a sacred cow in Maryland,” Hughes said. “The focus must now turn to serving all of Maryland’s citizens, not just commercial interests.”

The conservation group also congratulated the Maryland Natural Resources Police, saying officers are continually given more responsibilities while their manpower and budgets have been slashed. Somehow these men and women answer the call, as was evident in the rockfish investigation.

CCA chapter meeting-The Northern Virginia chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association invites the public to come to its meeting at 7 p.m. next Wednesday at Grace Presbyterian Church in Vienna. Special guest Francis Zell will give a presentation on light tackle fishing on the Chesapeake Bay. Zell fishes 150 days a year. For more information, e-mail ernierojas@verizon.net.

Look for Gene Mueller‘s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com. Mueller’s Inside Outside blog can be found at www.washingtontimes.com/sports.

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