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Stiffer penalties needed for illegal commercial fishing

Red snapper? Red grouper? It’s a red alert for saltwater anglers and the dealers who serve them as we approach this year’s reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary law governing fisheries in federal waters. Moreover, there needs to be increased penalties for commercial fishermen who break the law and foreign vessels illegally taking fish in U.S. waters.

For example, last week the Coast Guard cutter Heron seized about 120 red snapper aboard the Capt. Wallace B, a shrimp boat out of Brownsville, Texas. Heron was on routine patrol when they conducted a law enforcement boarding of the shrimper and discovered the illegal catch. Currently, the red snapper fishery in Gulf of Mexico waters is open only to commercial vessels holding an individual fishing quota (catch share) permit for red snapper. Meanwhile, for recreational anglers, red snapper fishing is closed.

The Capt. Wallace B was escorted to Port Isabel and the catch turned over to a National Marine Fisheries Service agent. The vessel owner could receive civil penalties of $20,000, hardly an adequate fine or deterrent to illegally fishing. More to the point, the fine should be six figures and, even better, there should be a clear provision in the law that allows suspension for an extended period of the fishing license (for any and all species) held by the vessel’s owner.

During the last year, 64 miles of illegal fishing gear were removed from federal waters by the Coast Guard. This included unlit, unmarked longline and gillnets that are hastily abandoned when the Coast Guard is seen coming.

In another case that should test the patience of recreational anglers, the U.S. Supreme Court let Florida commercial fishing boat captain John Yates off the hook after being convicted in lower courts of avoiding prosecution by tossing overboard undersized, illegal red grouper.

Yates was fishing off Florida when National Marine Fisheries Service officers inspected his boat. The agents said Yates had taken undersized red grouper and instructed him to return to shore. But before the boat reached shore, Yates allegedly threw the fish overboard, an act that typically results in only a wrist-slap $500 fine or puny temporary license suspension.

But in an unusual prosecution, Yates was charged under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which prohibits knowingly altering or destroying “any record, document or tangible object” with the intention of obstructing an investigation. Congress passed the law after the Enron scandal, when scores of documents were shredded to conceal wrongdoing.

A federal jury convicted Yates and he was sentenced to 30 days in jail. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 opinion, tossed the conviction, saying Yates should not have been prosecuted under a law targeting accounting fraud.

The law prohibits destruction of “any tangible object” during a federal investigation. Prosecutors argued that throwing fish overboard was “shredding” of “tangible evidence” and, under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence! However, Yates argued that the law was aimed at the destruction of financial documents — not fish — and won the split decision.

Notably, Justice Elena Kagan, writing in dissent, said Congress intended the law to have a wide scope to ban destruction of any physical evidence that could thwart law enforcement. “A fisherman like John Yates, who dumps undersized fish to avoid a fine, is no less blameworthy than one who shreds his vessel’s catch log for the same reason,” Kagan said.

It’s hard to imagine that Congress intended Sarbanes-Oxley to apply to a man throwing undersized fish overboard. So this case highlights the need for more aggressive provisions for prosecuting fishing violations by commercial boats under Magnuson-Stevens.

Finally, the Coast Guard recently pursued two Mexican fishing crews, interdicting one of them. A Coast Guard helicopter spotted the boats poaching fish approximately 10.5 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico maritime border. The air crew watched the fishing crew dispose of three sets of illegal long line fishing gear.

A Coast Guard boat crew arrived on the scene. The four Mexican nationals admitted to fishing illegally in U.S. waters with about 133 red snapper and shark on board. The Coast Guard estimates there are more than 1,100 incursions annually by Mexican commercial boats poaching upwards of 760,000 pounds of red snapper.

Coming in Part 2 on Thursday

A basic understanding of Magnuson-Stevens and a look at how we in recreational fishing have become more influential in federal fisheries management than ever before.



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