Jim Price saw first hand how charter boats out of Virginia Beach and North Carolina illegally fish for striped bass in federal waters each winter.
Price, a former charter captain and waterman, told law enforcement officers this week that he was a paying customer aboard two such boats just last month.
One of his trips during the week of Valentine’s Day was a make-up outing and he shared the charter out of the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center with a bunch of people he didn’t know. Their boat joined a flotilla of 45-50 boats about six to seven miles off the coast, well into federal waters.
Anglers were pulling in striped bass “one about every 20 minutes,” he told members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s law enforcement group.
“If never seen anything on this scale before,” said Price, president of the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation in Easton.
Price’s testimony follows searches earlier this month of charter boats based in Virginia by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration special agents. Armed with search warrants, they seized logs, radios, cell phones, fuel records and client lists. A grand jury is meeting to hear evidence.
Charter boats and commercial vessels are prohibited from fishing for striped bass in the EEZ, a swath of ocean that begins three miles off shore and ends at international waters 200 miles out.
But boats often follow the fish into federal waters, despite increased patrols by the Coast Guard.
When Price asked the mate why boats didn’t stay inside state waters, he was told, “that would be a waste of time.”
As they fished, a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft circled overhead and a large Coast Guard boat appeared nearby. Suddenly a small, inflatable boat with four Coast Guardsmen aboard “came out of the sun” and boarded the charter. When asked what he was targeting, Price said the captain replied, “I’m fishing for everything I can catch.”
After a search, the four men moved onto another boat.
“Anyone out there could see these boats were fishing for striped bass. These boats are not afraid of the Coast Guard, not even after boarding,” Price said.
No one stopped him from shooting video or taking pictures or showing him the results of the day’s adventure when he reached Oregon Inlet.
“There were 50 fish in coolers and 50 fish in trash cans,” said Price, who filed a complaint and photos with NOAA on Feb. 22.
Col. Kyle Overturf, who chaired the meeting and is head of Connecticut’s Environment Conservation Police, said a task force of state and federal agents, such as one one that broke the Chesapeake Bay poaching ring, is needed to clamp down on rampant poaching.
His counterpart in Maine, Col. Joe Fessenden, agreed. “Everybody knows where the Coast Guard is. You’ve got to use state boats or undercover agents to get the job done. We’ve got to get a handle on this thing. It’s big money.”