Volume XVII, Issue 40 # October 1 - October 8, 2009

from the Editor

The Great Chesapeake Bay Rockfish Conspiracy

Sustainability is a hard lesson to learn — for us all

“If commercial fishermen obey the rules, we can all enjoy rockfish forever. If they don’t, the rockfish population could be wiped out very quickly,” said U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein after the most severe sentence so far in the Great Chesapeake Bay Rockfish Conspiracy.

Robert Lumpkins, owner of Golden Eye Seafood LLC, of St. Mary’s County, goes to prison for 18 months. He’ll also pay $164,000 in restitution; a fine of $36,000; and a special assessment of $1,600. Lumpkins is one of 15 people — and his company, on probation for three years, one of two seafood companies — convicted of illegally harvesting and underreporting their catch of striped bass between 2003 and 2007.

Striped bass, which we mostly call rockfish in the Chesapeake, are a national resource that survives under protection. Because striped bass are a migratory fish indifferent to political boundaries, they’re managed regionally, by the Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission.

As with many other fish, both recreational and commercial fishers are limited in how many they may catch. State-by-state quotas for migratory fish are set annually. Then states decide how to divide the wealth, defining seasons and catch limits by number and pounds of fish. Department of Natural Resources makes those decisions for Maryland, after holding public hearings.

Commercial fishermen get quotas in both pounds and numbers of fish. Golden Eye is one of the places that checks in the catch and keeps count under the quotas.

The conspiracy worked by cooking the books. Sometimes, according to the Justice Department, Lumpkins “falsely recorded the amount of striped bass that fishermen harvested.” He might lower the number or the weight of fish caught. Or he might inflate the number of fish but underreport the weight.

Fishermen got to catch more, and Golden Eye got to sell more, including bigger-than-legal fish that Lumpkin bought from an undercover agent posing as a commercial fisherman.

Bringing down the conspiracy took years and a skillfully produced law enforcement effort.

Lumpkins’ sentence is the longest and his fine the highest. But among the fishermen, sentences are as long as 15 months in prison, and fines $4,000 or $5,000, with restitution as high as $96,250.

All of the restitution goes to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to benefit the Chesapeake Bay Striped Bass Restoration Account.

U.S. Attorney Rosenstein, is right. We can’t take all we want. We live in a world of limits.

It didn’t use to be that way. America has always believed in plenty. This land and water of ours was full of potential. You could have plenty if you were strong and smart enough to take it.

Now, we’re at the point where those two ethics rub together like tectonic plates, and cataclysms happen at such rough edges.

Sustainability takes rules and regulators and giving up your share of plenty, which has always been the lion’s share. As an uncle once told me, the lion doesn’t share. Neither do the hearty individualists who wrestle their living from earth and sea. That’s one of America’s favorite hero types, and if he sometimes rustles as well as wrestles, all the better.

That’s who our watermen have always been, so it’s no surprise that some of the 15 are neighbors are men who, over the years, have helped Bay Weekly learn the stories we tell of working the water.

They’re the same men who, the advocacy group Environment Maryland reported just before the sentence came down, are as threatened by pollution as our waters themselves. “A bold Chesapeake Bay clean-up plan is needed to restore Maryland’s commercial fishing industry,” the report concluded.

So — while there may and probably was greed in these crimes — greed is not the whole story.

There’s also a way of life at stake, and what a man will do to hold onto it when it’s slipping away.

       Sandra Olivetti Martin

   editor and publisher