A three-year federal undercover investigation into Virginia-based charter boats illegally fishing for striped bass more than 3 miles off the coast led to the seizure Thursday of electronics and records from a number of vessels.
Special agents from the law enforcement office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration served search warrants on at least four boats that primarily operate out of Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach.
Seizures included GPS units, cell phones, radios, ship logs, manifests and client lists, a source familiar with the investigation said.
The investigation is being handled by NOAA and the Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Unit, the team that last year successfully prosecuted the massive Potomac River striped bass poaching operation.
Last fall, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission complained about illegal fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone, a wide swath of water three miles to 200 miles off the coast that is off limits to striped bass fishing.
Winter fishing off Virginia Beach and North Carolina, where the big striped bass migrate to await spawning season in the Chesapeake Bay, is a lucrative business. Charter boats from Maryland and North Carolina often spend a month or two working out of Virginia Beach.
Illegal charters use spotters and satellite phones to watch for law enforcement boats and planes. When patrol boats approach, poachers dump fish overboard in weighted containers to destroy the evidence.
ASMFC commissioners called the poaching “problematic” and asked NOAA and the Coast Guard to step up enforcement efforts.
“This high concentration of aggregating fish in the ocean over wintering grounds off the Virginia Capes south to Cape Hatteras makes them especially vulnerable to harvest,” ASMFC Executive Director Vince O’Shea wrote. “Depending on their magnitude, unreported landings have the potential to jeopardize the status of the stock.”