Suspected Rockfish Poachers Indicted After Two-Year Investigation
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Suspected Rockfish Poachers Indicted After Two-Year Investigation

AV Sandusky pulls up a massive, old gill net found at Bloody Point from the poaching operation.

Conservationists, watermen and anglers are applauding efforts by the Maryland Natural Resources Police and its federal law enforcement partners in obtaining indictments of four Talbot County watermen accused of running a striped bass poaching ring that spanned four years and was worth nearly a half million dollars on the wholesale market.

The 26-count indictment handed down Thursday provides the link between the actions of the four men and the discovery of illegal gill nets filled with fish found off Kent Island in February 2011. The incident triggered a massive police enforcement effort, generated a series of tough laws from the General Assembly and closed the commercial striped bass season three weeks early to prevent overfishing.

“Marylanders can be proud of these officers, whose hard work, long nights and nonstop investigative efforts have paid off,” said Governor Martin O’Malley. “Poachers steal from honest anglers, watermen, and all of us who responsibly enjoy our State’s natural riches and respect the livelihoods of the hardworking men and women who rely on this fishery.”

The indictments by a federal grand jury in Baltimore came after a more than two-year joint investigation by NRP officers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Justice Department, who painstakingly shifted through thousands of documents and reports to construct a paper trail of the crimes.

“We hope that Maryland citizens are beginning to realize that these are crimes against the State,” said Tony Friedrich, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland. “All of our best science is based on reliable catch reports. By falsifying data and poaching Maryland’s State fish, they are not only putting the entire stock at risk but making a mockery of our combined efforts to conserve the striped bass population.”

Beginning in January 2007, Michael D. Hayden, Jr. and William J. Lednum, both of Tilghman Island, and unnamed others conspired to overharvest striped bass and falsify records submitted to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Their illegal catch was sold to wholesalers in Maryland, New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

In addition, the grand jury found that in 2011, Hayden, Lednum and two other watermen ─ Kent Sadler, of Tilghman Island, and Lawrence “Daniel” Murphy, of St. Michaels ─ attempted to catch about 20,000 pounds of striped bass before the start of the 2011 commercial season using gill nets illegally set and left unattended in the Chesapeake Bay.

Hayden also was indicted on one count of witness retaliation and two counts of witness tampering in connection with the grand jury probe.

Billy Rice, chairman of the Tidal Fisheries Advisory Commission, expressed his gratitude on behalf of the commercial fishing industry for law enforcement efforts.

“Poaching does not reflect a majority of our industry,” Rice said. “It hurts our livelihood and our image. We hope these indictments send a strong message.”

Officers discover illegal attempts to harvest fish using a gill net as part of this poaching ring.

Bill Goldsborough, chairman of the Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission, praised the State and federal partnership that led to the indictments.

“Egregious fishing violations are major challenges for fisheries management,” said Goldsborough, also a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Effective enforcement like this is essential to healthy fisheries.”

As part of any sentence should the watermen be convicted, the federal government will seek to seize Hayden’s 38-foot work boat, his 2009 pick-up truck and all his fishing gear and Lednum’s 46-foot work boat and his fishing gear.

If these watermen are found guilty they could permanently lose their Maryland commercial fishing privileges.

As part of its continued effort to better protect Maryland’s public fishery, DNR most recently introduced the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network ─ MLEIN, a network of radar units and cameras that scans the Chesapeake Bay for law breakers.