Several Virginia fishing boat captains were confronted Thursday in what officials said is the result of a three-year undercover investigation into striped-bass fishing in federal waters known as the Exclusive Economic Zone.
The zone is an area between three and 200 miles off the coast where fishing for striped bass, also known as rockfish, is against federal law.
Agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had a search warrant and boarded Capt. Mike Romeo’s Rudee Inlet charter boat – Gannet – seeking evidence of illegal fishing.
Romeo told The Virginian-Pilot that he was questioned, his radios were checked by members of the Federal Communications Commission, and all his licenses were examined.
“They didn’t take anything or issue any tickets,” said Romeo, 53. “But they were on my boat for about two hours.”
According to The Baltimore Sun, NOAA officers posing as clients were involved in the Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Section-supervised sting operation that resulted in confiscation of GPS units, cell phones, fuel logs, radios, ship logs, manifests and client lists.
Fishing outside of the legal three -mile line has become common practice for private boat owners and charter captains in search of striped bass. The fish are big business in the winter, pumping millions of dollars into economies in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. Stripers often school outside the line because of weather conditions or to follow bait – tempting anglers into illegal waters.
The Sun reported that members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission had complained last fall about illegal fishing in the EEZ. Commission members asked for an increase in penalties and enforcement.
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission Executive Director Vince O’Shea said in a written response that “striped bass on the wintering grounds off the Virginia coast are especially vulnerable to harvest. Depending on their magnitude, unreported landings have the potential to jeopardize the status of the stock.”
Capt. Trick Standing of Virginia Beach said Thursday’s raid was being viewed around Rudee Inlet as a warning.
“I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” Standing said. “They’ve done all this work, but there were no tickets issued – nothing to show for it.
“It seems like a big waste of time and money.”
Romeo, Standing and several other captains said Thursday night that they feel the raids were a sign of frustration on the part of federal fisheries managers.
“I think they’re becoming really aggravated,” said Romeo, who won the Mid-Atlantic Rockfish Shootout last year. The tournament uses GPS units and polygraph tests to make sure winners fished legally.
“I’ve never in all my years gotten a ticket for any kind of illegal fishing,” Romeo said. “They’re spending millions of dollars launching helicopters and planes, and sending out boats, for a couple of fishing tickets.
“If they catch somebody, it’s a hundred -bucks-a-fish fine, and they’re not catching many people.”
The captains offered a solution.
“Do away with the three -mile line and enforce it at the docks,” Standing said. “What’s the difference if your fish are caught two miles out or 20 miles out? Let us catch our fish, and if we’re over the limit, fine us.”