Bay Journal

Rockfish poaching nets waterman federal prison term

Sentencing awaits others in the case

  • By Rona Kobell on December 18, 2014
Striped bass like the ones illegally netted in the Tilghman Island case. (Photo courtesy of VIMS)

A Tilghman Island fisherman will have to serve time in federal prison for his role in a striped-bass poaching ring that spanned four years and netted  185,000 pounds of stolen fish valued at close to half a million dollars.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett sentenced William J. Lednum, 41, to one year and one day in jail, followed by six months home detention and three years’ probation. Lednum, along with his co-defendant in the case, Michael D. Hayden, will have to pay $498,923 in restitution to the Department of Natural Resources for the theft. Lednum also must pay a $40,000 fine.

Hayden, is scheduled to be sentenced Friday, February 27. Two more defendants in the Tilghman Island poaching case have upcoming court dates. Lawrence “Daniel” Murphy, 37, of St. Michaels, will be sentenced in federal court tomorrow (Friday, December 18th). Kent Sadler, 31, of Tilghman, will be sentenced January 7. Both have pleaded guilty.

Lednum and Hayden both pleaded guilty last summer to violating the federal Lacey Act, which prohibits the sale of illegally caught fish. Between 2007 and 2011, the pair - both captains of commercial fishing vessels - engaged in a conspiracy to take a public resource from the Chesapeake Bay and cover their crimes. They used illegally anchored gill nets and sometimes left them in the water overnight long after the netting season was closed for striped bass fishing.

They then falsified the daily allocation and permit paperwork they were required to file with the Department of Natural Resources. To further conceal their crimes, they sold the fish directly to wholesalers in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, circumventing fish check stations and mandatory harvest reports. Investigators determined the men, with help from others who have also pled guilty, stole about 185,000 pounds of fish that netted them a total of $498,293.47.

When Natural Resources Police discovered the theft in February 2011, the department shut down the gill-netting season, depriving law-abiding watermen of an honest living. DNR officials discovered illegal nets off Kent Island, spanning many miles. Officers discovered thousands of dead rockfish, so many that the department’s ice-breaker, the Sandusky, had trouble lifting them.

Yesterday, prosecutor Todd Gleason of the U.S. Department of Justice’s environmental crimes section reminded the judge that attorneys for the indicted fishermen had tried to describe the scheme as a crime against other watermen. But, Gleason argued, it was much more than that. To underscore the point, Michael Luisi, a fisheries manager with the Department of Natural Resources, explained that Maryland uses data it collects from harvest reports, fish-checking stations and tagging programs to set its striped bass policy.

It is crucial, Luisi explained, to have accurate harvest numbers, because harvest is the one aspect of managing the striped bass fishery that the department can control. Luisi and his colleagues can’t control the weather, the ocean currents, or the breeding patterns. But if they know how many fish the watermen are removing, they have in idea of the population. And if they are able to weigh, measure and assess the fish, they have an idea of the population’s relative health and abundance. They use that information to not only make decisions on fishing restrictions in the Chesapeake Bay, but they share the information with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which uses it to manage the species coast-wide. The Chesapeake Bay is the nursery for east Coast striped bass; what happens within its boundaries affects a huge recreational and commercial fishery coast-wide.

“The public has entrusted our agency,” Luisi told the court. “Conspiring against our agency, falsifying reports, poaching - it all undermines the job we are trying to do to protect the resource.”

Frank Bonnanno of the Coastal Conservation Association, which represents recreational fishermen, echoed Luisi but went further, asking the judge to consider the full sentence of five years for the crime.

“It may seem as though this is a victimless crime, but there are many victims,” Bonnanno said.

The judge was clearly moved by a courtroom full of Tilghman Island families, the 36 letters of character references for Lednum, the fisherman’s longtime service on the island’ volunteer fire department and Lednum’s own statements that he was disappointed in himself. But he said he could not agree with the defense’s recommendation of probation, even with the hefty fines.

“You’ve led an exemplary life, yet you’ve committed a very serious offense,” Judge Bennett told Lednum. “My job is to enforce the law, and there can be no deterrent without some kind of jail sentence…the simple fact is that there has to be a message sent from this courtroom.”

Bennett told Lednum he loved Tilghman Island and had a photo of Knapps Narrows in his conference room. While all Marylanders have an obligation to do their part for the Bay, Bennett said, the expectation was even higher for people who live so close to such beauty. On that front, Bennett told Lednum, “You have absolutely breached that obligation.”

Over the last two decades, federal judges have increasingly looked at poaching as a serious offense punishable by jail time. In 2010, a federal judge sentenced Profish vice president Timothy Lydon, of Bethesda, to 21 months in prison and a $60,000 fine for what was then the largest fish-poaching scheme in the Chesapeake Bay. Fish buyer Benjamin Clough of Grasonville got 15 months in prison and a $7,500 fine. The Profish cases so disturbed the legislature that they helped bring about the Natural Resources Police’s power to suspend licenses indefinitely for repeat offenders. Both the Potomac River Fisheries Commission and the Virginia Marine Resources Council took notice as well, suspending the licenses for as long as the law allowed.

After Lednum’s sentencing, Capt. Lloyd Ingerson of the Natural Resources Police said the sentence was appropriate and that the department was “very satisfied.”

Lednum will be paying for his crime for decades after his prison sentence is complete. The judge ordered him to pay $100 a month towards the fine and $250 a month towards restitution.

Lednum’s co-defendant, Michael Hayden is scheduled to be sentencedFriday, February 27, at 10 a.m. Hayden was supposed to be sentenced jointly with Lednum yesterday. But Hayden was also charged with several counts of obstruction of justice for allegedly intimidating witnesses. He did not plead guilty to the obstruction charges, but the judge indicated he would take the charges into consideration at sentencing. Hayden’s lawyers challenged the assertion his client had intimidated anyone, and the judge said he was not comfortable making a sentencing determination without giving Hayden an opportunity to defend himself. A mini-trial on the obstruction charge will precede Hayden’s sentencing.

Yesterday, Hayden asked the judge if he could be responsible for any incarceration or restitution Murphy is required to pay.

“I drug him into this situation, Your Honor,” Hayden said. “I want to be 100 percent responsible.”

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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