Federal officers search charter boats suspected of rockfish poaching

Waters off Virginia Beach offer prime winter fishing for tourists, but many areas are off limits

March 10, 2011|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

A three-year federal undercover investigation into charter boats illegally fishing for striped bass in a closed area off the Atlantic coast led to the seizure Thursday of electronics and records from a number of vessels in Virginia.

Special agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration served search warrants on at least four boats that primarily operate out of the Northern Neck and Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach. The vessels' port of origin is not known, but as many as 35 Maryland charter boats spend a month or two during the winter in Virginia.

Seizures included GPS units, cell phones, fuel logs, radios, ship logs, manifests and client lists, a source who has been briefed on the investigation said.

Officers posing as clients have been able to take photos and videos of illegal fishing; those materials helped build the case.

The sting is being supervised by the Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Section, which last year successfully prosecuted the massive Potomac River striped bass poaching operation. A Justice Department spokesman said he could not comment on the ongoing investigation. NOAA officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

"I hope this is a wake-up call for everybody," said Brian Keehn, president of the Maryland Charter Boat Association. "We need to start paying attention to the striped bass before we have another moratorium and no one fishes. Illegal fishing hurts everybody."

Winter fishing is a lucrative business in the waters off Virginia Beach and North Carolina, where big striped bass migrate to await spawning season in the Chesapeake Bay. When the fish are close to shore, catching is easy and legal. But when they swim in search of warmer water they move into the Exclusive Economic Zone, a wide swath of water three miles to 200 miles off the coast that is off limits to striped bass fishing.

Many boats follow, lured by the promise of fish weighing 50 to 70 pounds.

"Recreational, commercial, charter boats, it's everyone. No one is less guilty than anyone else," said one Maryland charter boat captain, who requested anonymity because of fear for his safety.

Police say poachers use spotters and satellite phones to watch for law enforcement boats and Coast Guard helicopters and planes. When patrol boats approach, poachers dump fish overboard in weighted containers to destroy the evidence.

If they elude capture, paying clients take some fish but some fish are filleted and illegally sold to restaurants in Maryland and Virginia, police said.

Last fall, members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission complained about illegal fishing in the EEZ, calling the poaching "problematic." In letters to NOAA and the Coast Guard they asked for an increase in penalties and enforcement.

Striped bass on the wintering grounds off the Virginia coast are "especially vulnerable to harvest," ASMFC Executive Director Vince O'Shea wrote. "Depending on their magnitude, unreported landings have the potential to jeopardize the status of the stock."


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