Twelve commercial fishermen from North Carolina and one from Georgia have been charged in federal court in Raleigh for the illegal harvest and sale and false reporting of around 90,000 pounds of striped bass from federal waters off the coast of North Carolina during 2009 and 2010, the Justice Department announced on Wednesday.  The average retail value of the illegally harvested striped bass is approximately $1.1 million.

This investigation began as a result of the U.S. Coast Guard boarding of the fishing vessel Lady Samaira in February 2010, based on a complaint that multiple vessels were fishing striped bass illegally.  The 13 fishermen have been charged with violating the Lacey Act, which is a federal law that prohibits individuals from transporting, selling or buying fish and wildlife harvested illegally.  Additionally, 11 of them also have been charged with filing false reports in connection with the illegally harvested fish.  One is also charged with obstruction of a proceeding before a federal agency. 

The indictments allege that the commercial fishermen transported and sold striped bass, knowing that they were unlawfully harvested from federal waters off the coast of North Carolina.  In an effort to hide their illegal fishing activities, these fishermen falsely reported harvesting these fish from state waters, where it would have been legal.

“The illegal poaching of striped bass by commercial fishermen can have a huge collective impact on the fish resource and has the potential to devastate the future livelihoods of law abiding commercial fishermen,” said John C. Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.  “The vast majority of fishermen do respect the law and carefully monitor their harvest to ensure they stay within the well-researched limits.  Those who deliberately break the law will be prosecuted.”

All of the defendants are licensed by the state of North Carolina and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to fish in state waters only for striped bass.  The individuals charged are:Gaston Saunders Jr. of Wanchese, Bryan Daniels of Belhaven, Ellis Leon Gibbs Jr. of Engelhard, David Saunders of Poplar Branch, Michael Potter of Bayboro, Steven Daniels of Wanchese, James R. Craddock of Manns Harbor, James K. Lewis of Gloucester,  Dewey W. Lewis Jr. of Newport, Dwayne J. Hopkins of Belhaven, John F. Roberts of Engelhard and Joseph H. Williams of Brunswick, Ga.

Under federal law, Atlantic striped bass may not be harvested from or possessed in federal waters, which are those waters more than 3 miles off the shoreline.  This ban has been in place since 1990 due to drastic declines of the stock that occurred in the 1970s.  North Carolina allows fishermen to harvest fish from state waters with certain restrictions in terms of numbers. Commercial fishermen are required to report on the fish harvested from state waters; that report is then submitted to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  NOAA uses the information on this report to assess the fishery and its sustainability throughout the eastern seaboard.

The Lacey Act makes it unlawful for a person to transport or sell fish that were taken in violation of any law or regulation of the United States and carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, plus the potential forfeiture of the vessels and vehicles used in committing the offense.

The charges are a result of the investigation by the Law Enforcement Offices of NOAA, with assistance of the Investigative Service from the U.S. Coast Guard, the North Carolina Marine Patrol, and the Virginia Marine Police.