Commercial Fisherman to Go to Prison for Illegal Rockfish Harvesting

Thomas L. Hallock, a commercial fisherman licensed in Maryland, was sentenced recently in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., to 12 months in prison for illegally overfishing striped bass also known as rockfish, the Justice Department announced.

He was also fined $4,000 and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $40,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to the benefit of the Chesapeake Bay Striped Bass Restoration Account.

"Today’s prison sentence should serve as a warning to fishermen and wholesalers who may consider undercutting the market and risking the continuation of the striped bass population. You will be prosecuted and you face the possibility of serving time," said John C. Cruden, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. "Fishing limits in the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River are designed to protect the healthy sustainable population of striped bass and ensure a viable fishery up and down the Eastern Seaboard."

"If fishermen obey the rules, the rockfish population can be sustained forever," said Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland. "If we allow overfishing, the rockfish population could be wiped out very quickly."

Hallock of Catharpin, Va., pleaded guilty on Feb. 19, to falsely recording the amount of striped bass that he harvested from 2003 to 2007 with the assistance of a Maryland designated fish check-in station. In each year, he failed to record some of the striped bass that was caught or recorded a lower weight of striped bass than was actually caught. Hallock and the check-in station operator would also falsely inflate the actual number of fish harvested. By under-reporting the weight of fish harvested and over-reporting the number of fish taken, the records would make it appear that the defendants had failed to reach the maximum poundage quota for the year but had nonetheless run out of tags. As a result, the state would issue additional tags that could be used by the defendants allowing them to catch striped bass above their maximum poundage quota amount. Hallock admitted to overfishing 68,442 pounds of rockfish that had a fair market retail value of $342,210.

In a related matter, charges were filed on April 20, against the fish wholesaler and its owner who operated the check-in station that assisted Hallock and others in violating the law. Golden Eye Seafood LLC and owner, Robert Lumpkins of St. Mary’s County, Md., were charged with four felony counts including conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and three substantive violations of the act. According to the charging document, Golden Eye Seafood and Lumpkins also purchased fish that were outside the legal size limit from an undercover agent and sold those fish to purchasers in New York, Virginia, and California.

Golden Eye and Lumpkins also conspired to falsely record and verify lower weights of and higher numbers of the commercially harvested rockfish than were actually being caught. By increasing the number of fish allegedly checked-in and decreasing the weight, the defendants made it appear as if they and other Maryland fisherman were using more tags and catching lower weights of fish. They, in turn, would request more tags as it appeared they had not reached their poundage quota.

Additionally, John Evans, a commercial fisherman who operated in St. Mary’s County and the surrounding waters of the Chesapeake Bay, was charged with a violation of the Lacey Act for overfishing striped bass.

The charges contained in the criminal information are not a finding of guilt. An individual charged by criminal information is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law. The Lacey Act carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 per offense.

Six other commercial fishermen have pleaded guilty to similar charges as Hallock and will be sentenced later.

Cannon Seafood, a Washington, D.C., fish wholesaler, its owner, Robert Moore Sr., and his son Robert Moore Jr. are scheduled for sentencing on May 8, 2009, at 9:30 AM in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Two fishermen, Joseph Peter Nelson Jr. of Great Mills, Md., and his father Joseph Peter Nelson of Avenue, Md., have been indicted in the District of Maryland and are awaiting trial.

As a result of the investigation and prosecution, two fish wholesalers and a total of 14 individuals have been charged.