Illegal striped bass harvest means trouble for N.C. commercial fishermen

Published 1:56 pm Wednesday, February 18, 2015

FRED BONNER | CONTRIBUTED KNOW THE RULES: This recreational fisherman checks the length of a striped bas that he just landed. Careful management of this fish’s population numbers has led to the recovery of this fish in North Carolina’s coastal waters.

KNOW THE RULES: This recreational fisherman checks the length of a striped bas that he just landed. Careful management of this fish’s population numbers has led to the recovery of this fish in North Carolina’s coastal waters.

It has been many years since I traveled along the coast of North Carolina gathering information on how many striped bass commercial fishermen were catching every year. N.C. State University had secured a grant from the federal government to have Dr. William W. Hassler conduct this study to try and find out if the striped bass were being over harvested and he’d assigned me to gather information from the fishermen.

The striped bass (sometime called “rock” or “stripers”) is arguably the No. 1 commercial and sport fish in our state. The red drum may be our North Carolina State Fish, but the rock classifies as a close second for this designation.

When all the catch data was being collected for Dr. Hassler’s program, the numbers of striped bass living and breeding along the entire Atlantic Coast were in pretty bad shape. There was even a strong movement being promoted by sport fishermen to place the Atlantic striped bass on the endangered species list, an action that would have placed a total ban on both the sport and commercial taking of striped bass along the entire coast.

When Dr. Hassler shared this survey information and his recommendations for the recovery of the striped bass with the N.C. Division of Marine fisheries and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). both agencies soon began intensive management programs designed to bring the population of striped bass up to acceptable levels.

Apparently, the good management practices worked because today the population of Atlantic striped bass is now considered to be “fully recovered.”

Both commercial and sport fishermen want to see the striped bass population remain at acceptable levels and perhaps the biggest key to achieving this level of success depends on protecting the big adult spawning fish. Many of these big spawners spend their winters in the Atlantic Ocean off North Carolina’s Outer Banks and these are the fish that most people would like to see conserved for the future of the striped bass.

This is why many North Carolinians, including many sport as well as commercial fishermen, were upset when 13 commercial fishermen in North Carolina and Georgia were charged in federal court in Raleigh for their role in the illegal harvest, sale and false reporting of approximately 90,000 pounds of Atlantic striped bass.


Thirteen commercial fishermen charged in North Carolina with illegally harvesting and selling Atlantic striped bass

Press release from the United States Justice Department


WASHINGTON — Thirteen commercial fishermen in North Carolina and Georgia have been charged in federal court in Raleigh, North Carolina, for their role in the illegal harvest and sale and false reporting of approximately 90,000 pounds of Atlantic striped bass from federal waters off the coast of North Carolina during 2009 and 2010, the Justice Department announced today.  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 individuals 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 these fishermen also have been charged with filing false reports in connection with the illegally harvested fish.  One of the fishermen is also charged with obstruction of a proceeding before a federal agency.  Specifically, the indictments allege that the commercial fishermen transported and sold Atlantic 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 Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden 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, North Carolina

•         Bryan Daniels of Belhaven, North Carolina

•         Ellis Leon Gibbs Jr. of Engelhard, North Carolina

•         David Saunders of Poplar Branch, North Carolina

•         Michael Potter of Bayboro, North Carolina

•         Steven Daniels of Wanchese, North Carolina

•         James R. Craddock of Manns Harbor, North Carolina

•         James K. Lewis of Gloucester, North Carolina

•         Joseph H. Williams of Brunswick, Georgia

•         Dewey W. Lewis, Jr. of Newport, North Carolina

•         Dwayne J. Hopkins of Belhaven, North Carolina

•         Ronald W. Berry of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

•         John F. Roberts of Engelhard, North Carolina

In early spring each year, wild coastal striped bass, Morone saxatilis, known regionally as “rockfish,” “striper” or “rock,” enter the estuary or river where they were born to spawn and then return to ocean waters to live, migrating along the coastline.  They may live up to 30 years and reach 50 pounds or more.  The population of coastal Atlantic striped bass depends heavily upon the capability of older, larger, female striped bass to successfully reproduce.

Under federal law, Atlantic striped bass may not be harvested from or possessed in federal waters.  This ban on fishing for Atlantic striped bass in federal waters has been in place since 1990 due to drastic declines of the stock that occurred in the 1970’s.  North Carolina allows fishermen to harvest fish from state waters, but often limits fishermen to no more than 100 fish per fishing trip.  Commercial fishermen are required to report on a fishing vessel trip report 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.

According to the Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission, “striped bass have formed the basis of one of the most important fisheries on the Atlantic coast for centuries.  Early records recount their abundance as being so great at one time they were used to fertilize fields.  However, overfishing and poor environmental conditions lead to the collapse of the fishery in the 1980s.”

The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, along with other states, has reduced, twenty-five percent, the catch limits for the 2015 striped bass commercial fishing season in the Atlantic Ocean and Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River areas, citing a decline in stocks.  The division cited 2013 surveys revealing that the female spawning stock has been steadily declining.  The reduction applies to all commercial and recreational striped bass fishing for all the eastern coastal states.

A criminal indictment is not a finding of guilt.  An individual charged by criminal indictment is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.

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.  These cases are being prosecuted primarily by Trial Attorney Shennie Patel of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Banumathi Rangarajan.