April 20, 2002
Illegal-fishing sting nets 20 suspects on North Star
By JACK KASKEY Staff Writer, (609) 272-7213, E-Mail
OCEAN CITY - A popular party boat here is hosting an illegal trade in live blackfish that supplies hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fish to Asian restaurants in New York and Philadelphia, state wildlife officials charged Friday.
An 18-month investigation into allegations of an illegal blackfish trade aboard the North Star ended this week with 100 citations issued to 20 anglers, including the boat's captain and a mate.
The state used an undercover agent, posing as a fishermen, to build a case against fishermen who caught and sold the fish live, without a license and outside the commercial season, said Capt. Joseph Meyer, a marine enforcement officer with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.
The fish are in demand at Asian restaurants and markets in New York and Philadelphia, where live fish are the ultimate guarantee of freshness.
"In this particular area, this was the major outlet for it," Meyer said. "We believe the majority of the fish were being sold in Philadelphia and New York City."
Blackfish, also known as tautog or tog, are overfished and legitimate anglers face sharp cutbacks in coming years.
North Star lawyer Joseph Grassi said he was not aware of the most recent charges and he accused wildlife officials of trying his clients in the press.
The state also has failed to supply evidence backing up prior allegations of illegal tautog fishing on the North Star, Grassi said.
"Somebody is out to smear these people," the Wildwood-based lawyer said. "It sounds pretty silly to me that the North Star is the center of some blackfish conspiracy."
The investigation was prompted by recreational anglers aboard the North Star who complained about suspicious activity to the state Department of Environmental Protection, Meyer said.
A DEP marine enforcement officer spent 18 months posing as a fisherman aboard the North Star, earning the trust of captain and crew and documenting a thriving illegal blackfish trade, Meyer said.
"A lot of people don't realize the work involved in something like this," Meyer said. "They are careful in what they do and it requires a great deal of police work to build a case and finally prosecute."
Soon after the officer began fishing on the North Star, other anglers asked to buy his fish, he said.
"They want to purchase as many fish as they can," Meyer said.
The captain and mate always sold their catch, he said.
The fish, kept alive in aerated tanks aboard the boat, numbered in the hundreds, perhaps thousands, over the course of the investigation, he said.
A total of 100 summonses were mailed to 20 North Star anglers this week, including the captain and mate, both of Ocean City, Meyer said.
The others hail from Pennsylvania, New York and New Hampshire.
Charges include illegally selling wildlife products for profit, sale of tautog during a closed season, sale of tautog without a permit, purchasing tautog as a dealer during the closed season and exceeding the recreational possession limit.
While recreational anglers can catch tautog year-round, the fat-lipped, bottom-feeding fish are off limits to commercial anglers in the summer and winter. Only fish at least 14 inches long may be landed.
About 35 people are licensed to sell blackfish in New Jersey, but even they are not allowed to sell fish caught aboard a charter boat like the North Star.
"There is a legitimate source for it and a legitimate season for it," Meyer said.
But the demand for live fish persists regardless of closed seasons.
Asian cooks prize young, fresh blackfish, so an undersized, live fish can fetch $4 to $5 a pound, about three to four times what a dead one fetches on the wholesale market.
"Money is the driving force behind most of the illegal activity," Meyer said.
Some estimate that the underground market more than matches the 41,000 pounds of blackfish legally caught each year by New Jersey's licensed commercial fishermen.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which has proposed halving the legal blackfish catch next year, is preparing a study to gauge the magnitude of the illegal trade.
The DEP previously charged Hyland and North Star owner Paul Barrus Jr., along with four anglers, in connection with 552 pounds of blackfish seized Jan. 29. Two Chinese nationals who allegedly caught 100 blackfish illegally aboard the North Star were charged Jan. 5.
All three cases are slated to be heard Tuesday, April 30, in Ocean City municipal court.