The Largest Black Market Fish Bust Ever?
Nov. 30 2010 – 4:08 pm | Forbes by Monte Burke
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement has busted a “vast criminal conspiracy” that included the illegal harvest, sale and purchase of more than one million pounds of striped bass with a market value of up to $7 million. The bust, the result of a seven-year sting operation, happened in the Chesapeake Bay, the primary spawning and nursery ground for striped bass on the east coast. “This may be the largest case of its kind in U.S. history,” said Special Agent Kenneth Endress of the USFWS.
This is welcome news. Fish poaching—whether it’s for bluefin tuna, Atlantic salmon, striped bass, blackfish or many other species—gets very little media play and very little enforcement funding. (For instance, there are only three conservation officers who cover the 650-mile shoreline of the New York City Harbor). And poaching is a serious issue. It can push a species that’s flirting with extinction even closer to the edge. It can wipe out a species in a given watershed. It can make it impossible for biologists to set realistic species management guidelines.
It can even have serious health consequences for the consumer. Back in late June, I wrote a story about the poaching problems in the New York Harbor. For the story, I accompanied New York Department of Conservation officers Jamie Powers and Kevin Thomas on a sting operation in Manhattan. The conservation officers busted David Pasternack, an Iron Chef contestant, for attempting to sell illegal striped bass at his high-end and much-celebrated seafood restaurant, Esca. The big problem with selling illegal striped bass in New York is the fish very well could be from the city’s harbor. Stripers there happen to be chock full of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which at worst, cause cancer in humans and at best wreck immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems.
In the Chesapeake Bay bust, authorities discovered that a group of commercial fishermen were taking advantage of the area’s somewhat lenient laws and enforcement against illegally harvested and sold fish. But in 2003, an agent got wind of just how many fish were being poached. Together, agents from the USFWS’ Office of Law Enforcement, Virginia Marine Police and Maryland Natural Resources Police formed what was called the Interstate Watershed Task Force. The agents posed as buyers of the illegal fish. Seven years later, they captured and prosecuted the criminals.
Among the busted entities: Profish, Ltd, a prominent seafood wholesaler in the Washington, D.C., area. Profish was fined almost $1 million for buying, selling and transporting illegally caught striped bass (which is a violation of what’s known as the Lacey Act). The vice-president of Profish was sentenced to 21 months in prison. The company’s lead fish buyer was sentenced to 15 months. U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte, who administered the sentences, was quoted in the Baltimore Sun as saying: “Is it Bernie Madoff? Maybe not. But this is serious business.” On its website, Profish somewhat ironically gives prominent play to its sustainability efforts and ecological commitment.
Three other fish wholesalers and 19 individuals were also prosecuted in the Chesapeake Bay bust.Richie Chan
Fishermen's Conservation Association
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