CLEVELAND - Commercial fishermen and wholesale fish sellers in Port Clinton, Sandusky, Vermilion, and Cleveland were named in indictments issued by a Cuyahoga County grand jury in connection with long-term illegal marketing of yellow perch, a prized Lake Erie fish.
A total of 23 felony counts were listed late Wednesday in two cases that were developed under a concurrent investigation that began in 2003, said Kevin Ramsey, supervisor of Lake Erie law enforcement for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. The state's scrutiny began with a review of catch reports from 2002, in which discrepancies were found.
"Without a doubt, these are the biggest cases of their kind in our history," said Steve Gray, state wildlife chief. "The Division of Wildlife puts forth a major law enforcement effort on Lake Erie and in these cases there were some very flagrant violations of the law."
Yellow perch, which is popular everywhere from firehouse fish fries and household dinner tables to restaurants, currently is selling for about $10.25 per pound of fillets.
Perch also is a prized sport fish, trailing only the famous walleye in popularity.
One case includes 13 felony counts including engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, money laundering, possession of criminal tools, and two counts each of theft, forgery, uttering (turning in a false affidavit), tampering with records, and receiving stolen property. The charges all are felonies, varying from first-degree to fifth-degree and carrying penalties on conviction of up to 3 to 10 years in prison.
Identified in that case are Port Clinton Fish Co., Port Clinton, its owners Lee and Richard Stinson, and company employees Lori Colvin, Billy Mitchell and his son Mark Mitchell, and Mike Maloney.
The second case includes 10 counts covering the same range of felony violations alleged in the other indictment.
Smith Fisheries, Inc., Sandusky, a fishing and wholesaling operation, owners Joseph and Elizabeth Smith, and employee Roy Green;
●Westwater Fisheries, Inc., Vermilion, a wholesaler, its owners Darlene and Vito Ernande;
●Gary Rowan, Cleveland, doing business as State Fish Co., Inc., a wholesaler,
●and Lake Fish Inc., Sandusky, and Dale Trent, Jr., and Craig Carr, owners.
Jamie Dalton, a spokesman for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office, said that arraignments on the charges are set for June 15 in county common pleas court.
Mr. Ramsey said he could not divulge the quantities of fish handled by the illegal operations, but he added: "We're not talking about a few hundred pounds or we wouldn't be talking about these [felony] indictments."
But he added that the commercial licenses involved - in other words, the fishing operations - were held by Port Clinton Fish Co. and Joseph Smith.
"We want those nets out of the water - out!" asserted Mr. Ramsey. "We've seen enough."
Mr. Ramsey added that the state intends to press for restitution for losses to the perch fishery.
The state is filing liens against the equipment allegedly involved in the operations, including boats, nets, and fish-cleaning equipment, Mr. Ramsey said.
Perch stocks in Lake Erie had dwindled in the early 1990s because of poor hatches and overfishing, and agencies around the lake from Ohio, Ontario, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York agreed to strong conservation restrictions to help stocks rebuild.
The sport limit in Ohio, for example, was set at 30 per angler per day in the mid-1990s after years of a 50-limit and unlimited daily catches prior to that. The 30-fish limit remains in place.
The stock has recovered well, but conservative sport and commercial allotments are being expanded slowly as fishery managers cooperate to conserve the healthier stocks.
The marketing scam under scrutiny revolves around overfishing the quotas set on certain licenses, and then failing to report and then marketing the over-quota catches.
"The investigation continues in other venues and we are not ruling out other indictments against other parties," Mr. Ramsey said.
He said that while the investigation has focused on the period 2001 to 2003, the illegal marketing may have gone on longer.
The impact of the underreported fishing and marketing on Lake Erie's perch stocks was not clear immediately, although underreporting possibly belies the commercial fishing quotas allotted by the state in keeping with international management agreements on the lake's fish stocks.
"The Lake Erie fisheries resource is obviously very important to Ohio, and we've put a lot of effort into conserving the resource, including the commercial fisheries," Chief Gray said. "But for conservation to work, everyone has to abide by the rules and regulations."
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