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.
Yet with several other fishermen like Dean and Collins already in prison, the chances of staying free didn’t seem promising. He knew he probably would get locked up. The question was for how long? And would there be a business and watermen’s industry to return to when he got out?
Life begins in the freshwater tributaries that flow into the Chesapeake Bay.
The rockfish, renowned among sport fishermen for their fighting strength on the line, sense a temperature change in the ocean and make their spring run from the Atlantic, through estuaries and into freshwater rivers where they will spawn.
Once the fish return to the ocean, the fish eggs left behind hatch into the spawning rivers. Though some will grow up to 100 pounds and live 30 years, the fish are no bigger than a few centimeters across at first.
The Bay and its tributaries provide the nursery for most of the rockfish found from Maine to North Carolina, where they roam the coastline chasing after anchovy, menhaden, perch, squid and herring, among other favorites.
Year after year, sport fishermen, navigating the snags, currents and bars of the waterways, give chase, too.
Even presidents can’t resist.
At a 2004 news conference in Wells, Maine, President Bush recalled that “right off the beach here that old No. 41 and I liked to catch striped bass,” referring to past fishing trips with his father, the 41st president, George H.W. Bush.
In his book “Striper Wars: An American Fish Story,” author Dick Russell wrote of how the “lean white flesh had a delicate succulent flavor — seeming to combine the sweetness of the freshwater where it spawned, the saltiness of the ocean and the meatiness born of muscling its way down the Eastern coastline.”
Next to the blue crab, the rockfish holds a special place in Maryland lore. In 1965, lawmakers even declared it the official state fish. The move was a nod to history and big business.
One of the most sought-after fish since Colonial times, the recreational fishery of Atlantic striped bass supports a $6.5 billion per year industry with 60,000 jobs, according to federal estimates. The commercial industry includes another 5,000 jobs valued at more than $250 million.
But as recently as the 1980s, many feared rockfish were disappearing from Maryland waters for good.
He was a seafood dealer for a little company called Parks Seafood. He said his name was Kenneth Dunstan.
But he had a secret.
The man buying and selling fish in southern Maryland and Virginia actually worked as an undercover officer for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. And, along with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents, he was trying to net some fish poachers.
On April 15, 2003, the agent was busy. First, he paid $990 to a fisherman in Dumfries, Va., for 40 rockfish weighing 440 pounds. Many were caught illegally, it turned out, either too big or caught out of season. Later in the day, the agent called Golden Eye Seafood and spoke to its owner, Robert Lumpkins.
They set up a deal. Golden Eye, named after Lumpkins’ favorite duck, is located along a creek off the Potomac in a rural section of St. Mary’s County. Behind a small, refrigerated warehouse, crab and fishing boats sit docked as watermen unload their catch.
Golden Eye, which buys and sells fish and crabs and sends products across the country, serves as an important link in the economic food chain for Bay watermen. It is their access point to the marketplace.
On the path leading into Golden Eye’s property are three or four airline freight containers, a testament to the changing ways of the local seafood industry. It’s a global business now.
On a recent day, workers loaded crates full of crabs in specially cooled containers and packed them into the back of a delivery truck headed to Washington Dulles International Airport. Within hours, the blue crabs were being flown across the country.
In one of the early undercover transactions, the agent brought along 40 striped bass to Golden Eye, but some were longer than the 28-inch maximum permitted under fishing regulations. Such rules aim to protect the larger, egg-producing female fish.
The agent told the worker some fish might be too big.
“I hear no evil, see no evil as they say,” the worker said, according to court records.
Weeks later, the agent set up another deal, this one even bigger. He called Golden Eye and said his boss was on his way there with 500 pounds of rockfish.
“All of these are over that 28-inch limit, too.”
“OK,” the worker said.
“So kind of keep that to yourself.”
“They were supposed to be just 28, but if you all don’t say nothin’, I won’t,” the agent said.
“That’s right,” the worker added. “Money is money.”
The rockfish were disappearing.
The commercial catch of Atlantic striped bass had plummeted from 14.7 million pounds in 1973 to 1.7 million a decade later, according to government estimates.
The decline, because of overfishing and pollution, meant not only the loss of a prized sport fish, but thousands of jobs. Congress was alarmed.
In what’s widely regarded as a fisheries management success story, Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act in 1984, which allowed federal regulators to impose a moratorium on striped bass fishing. States soon began closing their fisheries.
From 1984 to 1990, rockfish was declared off-limits in Maryland. But as the stocks recovered, the state eventually reopened the fishery with restrictions and catch quotas to keep the stock from collapsing.
Yet as the rockfish stock rebounded, watermen saw other important species, particularly oysters and blue crabs, become harder to find. At the same time, scientists were growing increasingly concerned about the health of the Bay.
Pollution from sewage-treatment plants and fertilizer runoff, among other causes, have been blamed for the depletion of oxygen in the mucky bottom reaches of the Bay, experts say.
“The striped bass, especially the larger ones, like cooler water in the summer, and they want to go down into the deeper zones, but if there’s no oxygen, they can’t and so they’re squeezed to the surface,” said William Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “And that affects the striped bass health and makes them more disease-prone.”
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said he hasn’t seen diseased rockfish this year and that the numbers seemed healthy, but he noted that crab and oyster populations have indeed declined sharply over the years.
A report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation last year found the blue crab population dropped from 791 million in 1990 to 260 million in 2007.
For Lumpkins, like other wholesalers and watermen who had specialized in crabs and oysters, the problems meant they had to find other ways to make up for the lost business. Lumpkins turned to rockfish.
After months of undercover buys, agents had enough evidence to get a judge to sign off on search warrants and raid homes and boats across southern Maryland and Virginia.
The agents seized fishing tags, financial records and began interviewing witnesses. Some facing legal problems of their own, witnesses began to spill details, and investigators learned the secrets of how the various poaching schemes worked.
Most involved the use of tags that regulators send out to commercial fishermen each year.
These tags, slipped through the gill and mouth of each fish soon after the catch, are part of a quota system that regulators use to ensure a fishery isn’t overfished.
Because the fish fetch several dollars per pound, and because every fish needs to be tagged, the tags also are worth a lot of money. One big scheme in the case exploited the fact that in Maryland it wasn’t hard to get more tags.
Maryland set a quota for fishermen based on a total number of pounds each could catch each year. By underreporting the weight of the fish, fishermen intent on cheating the system could get more tags. Fishermen also could claim that tags had been lost, stolen or fell overboard.
“I think the case, when it became public knowledge, it definitely helped us realize that there were some things we needed to tighten up,” said Michael Luisi, assistant deputy director at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Now, he said, among other rule changes, fishermen can’t replace their tags during the season. “If you lose them, you lose them for the year,” he said.
Mr. Simns of the watermen’s group said Maryland was “pretty lax” in the past. But with all of the new, stricter regulations, “the pendulum has swung too far the other way,” he said.
“Those guys got greedy, but they were good guys, hard-working people,” Mr. Simns said. “They saw an opportunity and took it and got caught up in it. But the majority of people out there were doing it right.”
Lumpkins looked around the cemetery at the headstones and saw names like Crowder, Thomas, Rice, Lumpkins and Chester — all watermen. He knew their names and their stories.
He couldn’t help wonder how he had gotten himself into this mess, though, even now, he did not regret his chosen field. Three decades earlier, he tried college but found he preferred the water.
It was in the middle of a statistics class, after staring at the clock on the wall, when Lumpkins made his choice. He got up and walked for the door. The professor told him to sit down and said he couldn’t leave.
“Oh, yes, I can,” Lumpkins replied.
The next day, he caught 16 bushels of oysters. He sold them for $4.25 per bushel.
“I never, never looked back.”
Lumpkins has a keen sense of history and is proud of the watermen’s tradition. He gets angry talking about the pollution in the Bay, how the worsening conditions have forced good friends out of the business. He often remarks that he was born 50 years too late.
The watermen’s community, perhaps depleted in numbers, hasn’t forgotten Lumpkins, though.
Crabbers, fishermen and their families, chartering vans for the two-hour drive to the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, came from St. George Island and nearby towns and filled the courtroom during Lumpkins’ three days of sentencing hearings recently before U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte.
Most of the onlookers, including members of the Lumpkins family who sat in the front row, had written letters to the judge asking for leniency, warning that sending Lumpkins to prison would cripple what’s left of the watermen’s community.
“Without Bobby Lumpkins and Golden Eye Seafood, many watermen will be out of a job,” wrote Mike and Teenie Hayden of Hayden’s Seafood.
“I have never seen someone work day in and day out like the way this man does,” said Lumpkins’ son, also named Robert.
Lumpkins’ other son, Ryan, wrote, “This happened all over a fish. A fish that God put on this earth for us to catch. A fish that is overpopulated now. Fish that eat baby crabs. A fish that eats all our trout and spot.”
But prosecutors had their own compelling letters.
The Coastal Conservation Association of Virginia, for instance, asked Judge Messitte, to “send a message to poachers and the enabling wholesalers.”
“Unfortunately, poaching is alive and well in Maryland,” added Andy Hughes, chairman of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland.
And federal prosecutor Wayne D. Hettenbach argued that by taking more than their fair share, defendants like Lumpkins kept fish, and money, from honest fishermen.
In the end, the judge fell in the middle. He told Lumpkins that he deserved more prison time, but said he worried about the fate of Golden Eye and the impact of its closure on the watermen’s community. So he sentenced Lumpkins to 18 months in prison.
Lumpkins, who had tucked a picture of his recently deceased father in his shirt pocket, walked out of the courtroom relieved.
He thanked his lawyer, Bob Bonsib, and shook hands with his supporters as he left the courtroom. Things could have been much worse. He promised to do everything he could to keep Golden Eye open. But as the date to report to prison drew near, Lumpkins’ mood darkened.
He had hired a young salesman to help his wife, who was busy with her own consulting business, to run Golden Eye while he was gone. But the new hire had much to learn, Lumpkins said.
“I don’t know if it’ll last,” he said of his business.
Despite the years of investigation and the long looming prospect of becoming a federal prisoner, Lumpkins still found the situation hard to believe four days before he lost his freedom.
“There’s no sense in this,” he said standing among the tall pine trees outside his business. “Chain me to a tree and give me a doghouse and leave me there with a cell phone because then I could keep this business going and all these people going.”
He leaned down and pointed at a piece of scrap wood on the ground near his warehouse.
“It’s like this,” he said. “There’s a hundred dollar bill and you can just see it sticking out there underneath that, and you walk by it every day.
“You know it’s not yours. But after the fifth or sixth day, you’re going to pick it up. We just got baited into it.”