Two Maryland fishermen admitted Friday to illegally harvesting nearly 200,000 pounds of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay and selling the haul to seafood wholesalers.
Michael Hayden, 41, and William Lednum, 42, both of Tilghman Island, pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiring to violate the Lacey Act, which prohibits the trafficking of illegally caught fish.
“These defendants admitted to systematically plundering the Chesapeake Bay of an important and protected natural resource, and at the expense of the many honest fishermen who play by the rules,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Sam Hirsch, of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement.
Between 2007 and 2011, Hayden and Lednum, who were captains of commercial fishing vessels, sold at least $498,293 worth of illegally harvested or falsely labeled striped bass to wholesalers in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, according to the defendants’ plea agreements.
The duo caught the fish using illegally anchored gill nets, which they sometimes left in the water overnight and set out when the netting season was closed.
When Hayden and Lednum exceeded the maximum daily haul set by the state, they would either unload the surplus onto an anchored vessel or pay others to take the fish for them to state-run check-in centers to be counted and weighed, prosecutors said.
The two men also skirted reporting requirements by falsifying or failing to submit to the state documents regarding the number of fish caught and their weights.
The investigation touched off Feb. 1, 2011, when the state Department of Natural Resources found tens of thousands of pounds of striped bass snagged in nets anchored in the Chesapeake Bay before the official reopening of the fishing season.
Prosecutors said Hayden and Lednum were seen on the water nearby, and that one of their boats charged state wildlife workers' vessels as they attempted to seize the nets.
A grand jury in November returned a 26-count indictment naming Hayden and Lednum, along with Kent Sadler and Lawrence “Daniel” Murphy, who allegedly participated in the poaching ring while working on the fishing boats as helpers.
Hayden was initially accused of threatening three witnesses who agreed to cooperate with the investigation, but those charges were later dropped as part of the plea agreement.
He and Lednum each face maximum possible penalties of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when they are sentenced Nov. 4 and 5, respectively.
The men have already agreed to pay the state between $498,293 and $929,625 in restitution, prosecutors said.
Sadler pleaded guilty in March to charges stemming from the investigation and is slated to be sentenced Oct. 21. The allegations against Murphy have not yet been resolved.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Cunningham, of the District of Maryland, and Todd W. Gleason and Shennie Patel, of the Environmental Crimes section of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.
Special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also participated in the investigation.