WINTER HARBOR, Maine — An owner of a local seafood company has admitted to federal officials that he illegally harvested scallops off the mid-Atlantic coast.
Christopher Byers, 41, pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in Newark, N.J., to falsifying fishing records and obstructing justice, federal officials indicated in a prepared statement. Byers and six boat captains conspired in 2007 and 2008 to harvest more scallops than was allowed by law in an area off the coast of Delaware, according to federal court documents.
As a result, Byers’ company, D.C. Air & Seafood, which is in Winter Harbor, has been ordered to pay more than $500,000 in restitution to the federal government and to serve five years of probation, during which time it will not harvest any scallops. The company also will have to abide by “an environmental compliance plan to ensure all purchases and sales of fish comply with federal law,” federal officials said.
Byers himself could be ordered to serve five years in prison and to pay a fine of $250,000 when he is sentenced on March 18, 2014, according to officials.
Attempts Friday to contact Byers and his attorney, William Hughes of Atlantic City, N.J., were unsuccessful.
The case was prosecuted in New Jersey because that is where the boats unloaded their catch “during nighttime hours” onto trucks owned by Byers and D.C. Air, according to court documents.
The operators of the boats that were fishing for Byers’ company, five of whom are from Maine, already pleaded guilty in the case. George Bamford of Harrington, Robert Hersey of Harspwell, Michael Johnson of Milbridge, James Leighton of Milbridge, Michael McKenna of Steuben and Daniel Mahoney of Gloucester, Mass., each pleaded guilty in 2012 to filing false fishing reports and with tampering with those reports in order to obstruct the investigation.
According to court documents, the defendants reported they had harvested a total of 35,870 pounds of scallops in March 2007, July 2007 and March 2008 in a restricted fishing area southeast of Delaware Bay. Federal fisheries officials, however, indicated in the complaint that they believed the actual total was approximately 79,666 pounds, more than twice the amount the fishermen reported.
The catch limit set per trip for each vessel was 400 pounds but single-trip catch totals for individual boats ranged from 417 pounds to 1,841 pounds, according to the initial complaint filed in December 2011. The area where the scallops were harvested, known as the Elephant Trunk Access Area, had been closed to fishing from July 2004 to March 2007 as part of a rotation management program geared toward rebuilding scallop stocks off the mid-Atlantic coast, federal officials indicated.
The area was opened to fishing for approximately two weeks in early March 2007, in early July 2007, and again in March 2008, when the illegal harvesting took place. In each instance, the scallops were sold to wholesale seafood dealers outside New Jersey for approximately $6 per pound, federal officials indicated.
According to data compiled by the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the average price Maine fishermen were paid for scallops in 2007 and 2008 was between $7 and $8 per pound.
Byers and D.C. Air owned four of the fishing vessels involved, the names of which are Atlantic Hostage, EZ Rider, Promise Land and Undaunted. Hersey owned and operated the vessel Luke & Isabel and Mahoney owned and operated the vessel Moonraker, according to federal documents.
In February 2008, Byers and other defendants constructed hidden compartments on Atlantic Hostage and Promise Land for illegally harvested scallops, documents indicate. The following month, scallops were hidden from federal law enforcement officials on the EZ Rider and Atlantic Hostage.