BANGOR, Maine — A Dover-Foxcroft man who sold at least some of the Atlantic salmon he took from the Piscataquis River in August 2009 was sentenced Wednesday in U.S. District Court to six months in federal prison.
In addition, Mark Cox, 40, was sentenced to two years of supervised release after his incarceration.
Cox, who had no criminal record except for charges related to illegal fishing, waived indictment and pleaded guilty in February in federal court in Bangor to violating the Lacey Act, which is taking, selling or attempting to sell an endangered species.
“What you did, to me, is appalling, Mr. Cox,” U.S. District Judge John Woodcock said Wednesday shortly before imposing the sentence. “We have managed as a society to drive this fish away. The fish that you caught were survivors.”
Cox snagged at least eight Atlantic salmon by dragging a line filled with fish hooks along the bottom of a section of the river where they fed, according to the prosecution version of events to which he pleaded guilty.
“Those fish represent, in many ways, hope for our future in this state,” Woodcock told Cox. “They represent a test of whether we as a society can undo the damage we have done.
“Each fish you dragged out of the river,” he continued, “represented the truly heroic efforts of many people to save these fish. What you pulled out of that river meant less to you dead than it meant to the rest of us alive. So I am distraught that you went after this endangered species.”
Cox did not address the judge and no family members or friends accompanied him to court.
He faced up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000 on the federal charges. Under the prevailing federal sentencing guidelines, Cox faced between six and 12 months in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Lowell recommended that Cox spend seven months in prison. Federal Public Defender Virginia Villa urged Woodcock to sentence her client a term of probation that would include six months of home confinement due to his mental health problems and the fact that he has sole custody of his pre-teen daughter.
Cox will remain free on personal recognizance bail until July 15, when he is to begin serving his sentence. He drove away from the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building, where federal court is located in Bangor, in a sport utility vehicle bearing a bumper sticker with a picture of a fish on it that read, “Kiss My Bass.”
In addition to the federal charges, Cox pleaded guilty in December 2009 in Piscataquis County to state violations involving the sale of 46 brook trout, the possession of 41 brook trout over the limit, the possession of 21 brook trout over the limit and the possession of several live fish, all of which occurred on different days in the Dover-Foxcroft area. He was fined a total of $2,960 for the violations.
Many of the dead fish were shorter than the minimum length required by state law, wardens said at the time of Cox’s sentencing on the state charges. He kept several brook trout in an aerated tank in his house and was selling them illegally to stock farm ponds, according to previously published reports.
Cox came to the attention of state and federal officials in 2009 through an Operation Game Thief hot line tip. Wardens and U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents placed Cox under surveillance and observed him on his property and around the waters in the Dover-Foxcroft area.
On Aug. 19, 2009, agents witnessed Cox taking an Atlantic salmon and netting a second salmon caught by another individual. The pair caught the salmon by dragging hooks across the pool; the fish did not bite, according to the prosecution version of events to which Cox pleaded guilty.
An undercover agent contacted Cox a day later and paid him $200 for two bags of brook trout. The pair discussed the purchase of Atlantic salmon, and they agreed the undercover agent would pay $100 or more per salmon, according to court documents.
On Aug. 21, 2009, Cox was caught taking three Atlantic salmon from the Piscataquis River by snagging the fish. He sold the fish later that day to an undercover agent for $390. Cox had vacuum-packed the fish and labeled them as brown trout, according to court documents.
Cox told the agents he originally had caught the salmon for sport, but his dire financial circumstances led him to sell the catch, according to court documents. He also told agents he took at least eight Atlantic salmon from the river between Aug. 13 and 21, 2009.
Due to his state convictions, Cox has lost his fishing license for eight years, his attorney told Woodcock on Wednesday. Cox also will be banned from possessing firearms after his conviction for the federal felony.