- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

MILWAUKEE (AP) - A Wisconsin company that processes Great Lakes fish for sale worldwide has been caught up in a federal investigation into the illegal trafficking of lake trout, lake sturgeon, whitefish and walleye in Wisconsin and Michigan, according to a published report Saturday.

Federal court records show U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents set up a fake fish store in L’Anse, Michigan, recorded conversations on boats and in bars around Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, and recently raided Dan’s Fish in the northeastern Wisconsin city of Sturgeon Bay in Door County, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported (https://bit.ly/1xZRCRq ).

No criminal charges have been filed, but search warrants served as part of the investigation were recently unsealed. Federal law limits the commercial trade of wildlife taken illegally under state, federal or tribal laws. Each violation involving at least $350 worth of fish is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Kaye Hooker, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Michigan’s Western District, said several federal, state and tribal authorities we working “to maintain and safeguard a healthy fishery” but declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.

Rick Coad, a Madison-based attorney for Dan Schwarz, the owner of Dan’s Fish, told The Associated Press on Saturday that they couldn’t comment because of the continuing investigation. But he pointed to a statement they gave earlier to the Door County Register saying the company was fully cooperating with an investigation into “potential violations of regulatory issues.”

Federal court records show agents served the search warrants on businesses and fishing vessels in Michigan and Wisconsin. The fishermen and business owners named in the warrants include members of various Indian tribes and non-tribal fish dealers.

Besides Dan’s Fish, the warrants also named Peterson’s Fish Market in Hancock, Michigan, John Cross Fish Market in Charlevoix, Michigan, and the Beaver Island Fresh Fish Market on Beaver Island, Michigan. People who answered the phone Saturday at the Peterson and Cross markets told the AP that nobody was available for comment, while a number listed for the Beaver Island market was disconnected.

Fishermen and wildlife officials have long been concerned about diminishing catches of lake trout, sturgeon and walleye in the upper Great Lakes. Suspecting violators, federal agents went undercover in 2012, posing as an Upper Peninsula wholesaler, buying and selling tons of what agents allege was illegally harvested fish from lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron.

According to the documents, agents posing as the owners of UP North Fish Co. sold several suspect catches to Schwarz in Sturgeon Bay. Over 19 months, there were more than 50 sales, amounting to 94,000 pounds of fish, nearly half of which was illegal. The fish, trout and whitefish, had a retail value of nearly $150,000. Schwarz told one agent it was better not to know much about where fish come from.

“I just buy fish. … I don’t know where they came from, I don’t know how they got there, I don’t care,” Schwarz told an agent during a secretly recorded conversation in 2013.

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Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, https://www.jsonline.com

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