Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Steal Scallops? Go To Prison

Across the globe, we've heard the tales of "pirates" who capture endangered fish or violate fishing regulations. Often referred to as Illegal, Unregulated & Unreported (IUU) fishing, it poses a dire threat which needs to be stopped, and there have been a number of international efforts to prevent such crimes. We cannot forget though that sometimes these problems are more local, and are equally as important. Though we should generally support local fishermen, we must be realistic and understand that there will always be a tiny minority who choose to violate the law, and must be stopped and punished.

Potential violators need to understand that those who choose to violate U.S. fishing regulations will be caught, punished and may even end up in prison.

Back in December 2011, a criminal complaint was lodged against D.C. Air & Seafood, Inc. (based in Maine) and five individuals, included Christopher Byers, the owner of that company. The complaint alleged that the defendants conspired to violate 16 U.S.C. § 3372(d), 16 U.S.C. § 3373 (d)(3)(A) and 18 U.S.C. § 1519, essentially falsifying Fishing Vessel Trip Reports concerning their harvesting of Atlantic Sea Scallops.

The Elephant Trunk Access Area (ETAA) is a large fishing area on the East Coast, covering more than 1000 nautical miles, that contains a high density of sea scallops. The region was closed to scallop fishing from July 2004 to March 2007 to allow the scallop population to grow and renew, an important step in protecting the species. From March 1 to March 15, 2007, the region was temporarily reopened for scallop fishing with the provision that a ship could only harvest 400 pounds of scallops per trip. The region was then closed and again temporarily reopened from March 1 to March 13, 2008, with the same limit on catches.

The individual defendants in the complaint were the owners and/or operators of four vessels that were licensed to harvest scallops in the ETTA. These vessels were required to file accurate Fishing Vessel Trip Reports for their catches. However, it was alleged that all four vessels falsified these Reports, in both 2007 and 2008, concealing the true amount of scallops that they harvested, which was higher than the allowable 400 pound limit.

During these two years, the four vessels claimed on their reports that they only harvested approximately a total of 28,000 pounds, a little less than the legal limit. In actually, they harvested nearly an additional 80,000 pounds, which was never reported. Some of these ships had special hidden compartments to conceal the extra scallops, while sometimes the extra scallops were secretly off-loaded at night in Atlantic City. It is obvious that greed fueled these gross violations.

Fortunately, somehow NOAA learned of their perfidy and likely possessed sufficient evidence of the conspiracy that all of the defendants eventually pleaded guilty rather than go to trial. Just recently, defendant Christopher Byers was sentenced and he will spend 30 months in prison for his role in this matter. He must also pay restitution of $520,371, the value of the unreported scallops. In addition, his company D.C. Air is on a five year probation and cannot participate in the scallop industry during that period. The other individual defendants still await their own sentencing, and they too could face prison time.

Let us hope that all fishermen pay attention to this story and understand the great risks they take if they try to violate important fishing regulations. Is it worth the risk of going to prison? Is it worth threatening the continued existence of seafood species? Fishermen may be frustrated sometimes by stringent fishing quotas, but illegally breaking those quotas is not the solution.

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