Federal and local authorities arrested about 130 people in predawn raids from North Carolina to New York yesterday and charged them with illegally buying and selling wildlife. Tons of rockfish, as well as deer, two bears, bobcats, bald eagles, muskrats, wild geese and salmon from Lake Erie had been sold, officials said.
At least 18 persons were arrested in Maryland and Virginia, where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents posing as fish dealers bought 6,700 pounds of large, female rockfish from Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River watermen and seafood suppliers.
The fish, weighing 40 to 50 pounds and up, spawn in these waters each spring and are protected by state laws.
The agents resold the fish to dealers willing to handle them in New York, Philadelphia and the Washington area.
Yesterday both the suppliers and buyers the agents dealt with were charged, most with violating the federal Lacey Act forbidding sale, purchase or transportation of fish or wildlife taken in violation of state, federal, tribal or foreign law. It is punishable by up to five years in jail and a $20,000 fine.
More than 60 persons were arrested in Pennsylvania, where officials found illegal sales of deer and other species such as songbirds, ducks, owls, wild turkeys, otters, woodpeckers, rabbits and trout stolen from hatcheries.
"We bought 275 deer" in the course of the investigation, said Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman Ted Godshall, "and we could have bought a lot more."
He said the deer and other wild animals often were killed by poachers and nighttime "jacklighters" and sold for meat, taxidermy and decorative bird feathers. More than 500 Canada and snow geese were bought by agents for about $4.50 each, Godshall said.
Fish and Wildlife agency spokeswoman Megan Durham said a half-dozen federal agents worked with local and state authorities in 10 states during the investigation, which started in 1982 with reports of wildlife exploitation in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
She said about 300 officials cooperated on yesterday's arrests, most of which were made before dawn. Durham said it was "one of the largest undercover investigations we've ever had in the East."
"They got him," said William Cain, about his son, Lewis, a Rock Hall, Md., waterman and seafood dealer who was arrested at 6 a.m.
Spokesmen for Maryland U.S. Attorney Jay Frederick Motz confirmed that Lewis Cain had been indicted and charged in Baltimore, along with his son, Herb, and several other fishermen and seafood dealers from Rock Hall; North East, Md.; the Vienna-Salisbury region of Maryland's Eastern Shore and from Colonial Beach, Va., on the lower Potomac.
Also charged, said Motz, were Steve Himelfarb, president of U.S. Fish Co. in Kensington, and Annette Nalevanko, purchasing agent for Washington Fish Exchange in Alexandria.
Rick Leach, special federal agent in charge of the investigation, said agents probing the illegal rockfish trade found many fishermen and seafood dealers "who were not engaged in it, because they recognized the problems of the fish."
The number of rockfish, also called striped bass, has been declining dramatically along the East Coast for the last 10 years, prompting a statewide moratorium on catching them in Maryland.
"But another segment really didn't care," Leach said. "Their only interest was in making a buck."
One federal undercover investigator, who asked to remain anonymous, said rockfish commerce often was conducted at night. He said participants "knew what they were doing was illegal. The whole business, particularly in Maryland, was conducted undercover."
He said buyers to whom he sold fish at Fulton Fish Market in New York "didn't want to know where they came from. They told us, 'You just bring the fish. We'll pay you, then you go get some more.' "
The agent said it took more than a year to win enough trust to break into the rockfish trade, which he said was firmly established in Maryland and Virginia before the agents entered it.
About 20 people were charged with illegal trade in rockfish in North Carolina, where officials said fish hatched and stocked by the state in inland lakes were caught, transported to the seashore and sold as marine fish.
State law forbids sale of rockfish stocked in lakes because they are classified as game fish and reserved for sport anglers.
Leach said state and federal officials estimated that 110,000 pounds of the inland fish, worth about $500,000, was taken mostly from Kerr and Gaston lakes on the border between North Carolina and Virginia.
Leach said that in addition to yesterday's arrests, subpoenas and search warrants were served in the 10-state region for records and evidence from persons and companies not charged, and more arrests could result.
He said District of Columbia fish buyers also are being investigated.