Swimming in Intrigue in Backwoods of Md.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
The covert meeting that started it all happened in a warehouse set back in the Southern Maryland woods. The target had the money, $514.50.
The undercover officer had the fish.
He had 11 illegal rockfish, the stripe-sided beauties beloved by fishermen and diners. At this exchange, the stripers were the contraband: All were too big to be legal, protected so they could spawn new generations.
"You're sure this is all right?" asked the undercover operative, a Virginia police officer pretending to be a shady seafood dealer. He was fishing himself, trying to elicit a confession that the mark knew that what he was doing was wrong.
"I hear no evil, see no evil," the man said, according to court papers.
But somebody did.
That sale, in April 2003, helped launch a four-year covert investigation that authorities say revealed a web of people trafficking in illegal seafood from the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. The case became a dockside Donnie Brasco tale as agents used cover stories, recorded conversations and even a fish coroner to sketch links between a rural corner of Southern Maryland, a fish market in Georgetown and dinner plates along the East Coast.
Cheating is an old vice around the Chesapeake, with watermen sneaking in extra bushels of oysters or undersized perch.
Except for the man selling the illegal rockfish that day, it seems few people in the area thought somebody would make a federal case of it.
"I believe that most of them thought that the worst they were doing was only a state violation," said Robert T. Brown, president of the watermen's association in St. Mary's County, where much of the investigation took place. "They didn't know they were going to be in a federal court, I can tell you that."
Nine people have been charged in the case so far: seven fishermen along with a father and son from Georgetown's Cannon Seafood. They could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each violation of a federal wildlife protection statute. More likely, the sentences would range from probation to a year in jail. Two defendants have pleaded not guilty; the rest have signaled in court that they plan to plead guilty.
The case was the biggest of its kind in the region since at least the mid-1980s. Authorities say the traffickers moved about 600,000 pounds of illegal fish between 2003 and 2007, with a retail value between $3 million and $7 million.