Unusual task force sends message to poachers

It took 8 years and several agencies to unravel a network responsible for poaching millions of dollars worth of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay

  • U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said it was unlikely that Alan B. Fabian's victims would be able to recover all the money they lost.
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said it was unlikely that Alan… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
December 04, 2010|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

For years, crooked Maryland and Virginia watermen went to local courts and paid their fines for illegal fishing — $50, $100, $150 — and then went back to their boats to poach some more.

They considered it the cost of doing business, investigators say.

But a partnership of state and federal law enforcement officials changed the game. With the sentencing last week of the final player, the Interagency Wildlife Task Force laid waste to the largest commercial fish poaching ring in the history of the Chesapeake Bay.

The eight-year investigation snared watermen who caught striped bass out of season, exceeded their annual quotas and sold oversized fish, and wholesalers who knowingly bought the illegal fish and falsified records to hide the crimes.

In Elliott Ness style, a team of lawyers and officers built their cases on paperwork — much of it handwritten by the corrupt watermen and dealers — and weights and fish counts that didn't add up. Undercover officers labored to infiltrate a closed society, where family names worked like membership cards. And they bypassed the local courts in favor of federal charges, before a no-nonsense federal judge.

The change in tactics paid off. In all, members of the black market ring were found guilty of felony and misdemeanor charges of poaching 1.63 million pounds of striped bass with a fair market value of $6.54 million.

The task force convicted 19 men and put 15 of them in prison for violations of the Lacey Act, which prohibits anyone from transporting, selling or buying fish harvested illegally. Its investigation pushed two wholesalers out of business, and left a third reeling. The government collected $1.66 million in fines and restitution. And the case sent Maryland officials scrambling to close loopholes, toughen fines and penalties and repair a broken honor system for reporting catches.

"In the context of today's world, illegal harvesting and dealing of seafood may seem like a negligible offense," said Roy Hoagland, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Poachers often point to an immediate need to maintain their way of life and to hardships of making a living from the Chesapeake's ailing waters. But it is exactly this type of illegal activity that most threatens to undermine the long-term sustainability of our fisheries and our fishing-based communities."

Building a case

Developing evidence took time. The poachers did their most damaging work during April and May, when the biggest migratory striped bass enter the Chesapeake and its tributaries to spawn. Task force members wanted to reach beyond the low-hanging fruit — the watermen — to the dealers who made it worth their while to poach. And when it was all over, they wanted criminal convictions and severe penalties, not $50 tickets.

"This is not the sort of case you can prove by looking at a fish once it's on a plate in a restaurant or somebody's kitchen," said Rod Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney for Maryland. "You have to actually be there when the fish are caught and when they're sold at the first stage."

Late last month, OceanPro Ltd., Washington's largest wholesaler with $44 million in annual sales, and two company officials were sentenced to pay fines and restitution of $942,500 for buying from watermen tens of thousands of pounds of illegal striped bass and falsifying records from 1995 to 2007. In addition, vice president Timothy Lydon of Bethesda was sentenced to 21 months in prison and fish buyer Benjamin Clough of Grasonville was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The company, which also uses the name Profish, is still in operation.

The work of the task force established a model for states to work together with help from federal agencies to solve crimes against nature that cut across boundaries, law enforcement officials say.

"This is exactly — exactly — the kind of case that begged for a federal role," said Ignacia Moreno, assistant U.S. attorney general. "The Chesapeake Bay and the striped bass are national treasures. It's really important that we preserve them not only for our enjoyment but for the enjoyment of generations to come."

This account of the eight-year investigation is based on court records and testimony, evidence and interviews with lawyers for the Justice Department and undercover officers with Maryland Natural Resources Police, Virginia Marine Police and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose names are not used to protect their identities.

The investigation started in late 2002, targeting Virginia watermen: the Decaturs — Jerry senior and junior — and Scott, Kenneth and Dennis Dent. Officers suspected they were selling illegal striped bass to OceanPro Ltd. through a deal struck in 1995 by Scott Dent, nicknamed "The Brain" by investigators.

The Decaturs, who used spotters to warn them about approaching game officers, worked one stretch of the Potomac while the Dents fished about 10 miles upstream near the Quantico Marine Base.

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