LAKE ERIE BOAT CAPTAIN CONVICTED IN COMMERCIAL FISHING CASE|
$12,100 in fines and restitution levied on offender
SANDUSKY, OH - The captain of a boat belonging to a Port Clinton commercial fishing company was fined $12,100 last week for his part in a racketeering ring that illegally netted thousands of pounds of yellow perch from Lake Erie, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife.
Billy Mitchell, 48, of Port Clinton, employed by Port Clinton Fisheries, Inc. Wholesalers, entered a guilty plea in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court on January 19 to charges of theft. Judge Brian Corrigan subsequently ordered Mitchell to pay a $100 fine and $12,000 in restitution to the state for the stolen fish.
The case was one of several filed by the Division of Wildlife last year against individuals and businesses associated with Ohio’s commercial fishing industry. Numerous licensed commercial fishermen, two fishing companies, and three fish wholesale companies were charged with selling tons of yellow perch in excess of their allotted quotas, filing false catch reports, and selling unreported yellow perch. Division of Wildlife investigators said all the offenses took place between 2001 and 2003.
Several of those involved have pled guilty and received steep fines. The largest fine thus far was $87, 000 levied on Lake Fish, Inc. of Sandusky. Other cases are still pending.
Since 1996, Lake Erie’s yellow perch have been managed through a quota system, decided among the five states that border the lake and the Province of Ontario. Quotas are set in order to balance Ohio’s share of the lake’s yellow perch harvest between sport anglers and commercial fishermen. Commercial fishermen are required to keep accurate and legible catch reports and to stay within their licensed yellow perch quota in a given year. Safe harvest levels of yellow perch are determined by fisheries biologists in order to maintain healthy fish populations and provide quality fishing opportunities on Lake Erie.
The illegal netting case began in 2002 with a tip to the Division of Wildlife’s Lake Erie Enforcement Unit that some commercial fishermen were harvesting and selling Lake Erie yellow perch above their quota limits. Search warrants were executed and records seized from Port Clinton Fisheries, Inc. Wholesalers, as well as Smith Fisheries, Inc. in Sandusky, and West Water Fisheries, Inc. in Vermilion in January 2004, and from Lake Fish Company, Inc. in Sandusky in February 2004. After a lengthy investigation, a Cuyahoga County grand jury returned racketeering indictments against 14 commercial fishermen, two fishing companies, and three wholesalers in June 2005.
In October 2005, five of the commercial fishermen were convicted in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court as part of a plea agreement. The five were charged with engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, money laundering, tampering with records, receiving stolen property, and selling unreported yellow perch.
Joseph Smith of Smith Fisheries, Inc. pled guilty to theft. His company, Smith Fisheries, Inc., was ordered to pay $70,000 in restitution for the stolen fish. Roy Green of the same company pled guilty to misdemeanor theft charges and was ordered to pay $2,500 in restitution and a $150 fine.
Gary Rowan of State Fish, Inc. pled guilty to misdemeanor attempted receiving stolen property charges and was ordered to pay $7,250 in restitution and a $1,000 fine.
Vito Ernande and Darlene Ernande of Westwater Fisheries, Inc. pled guilty to misdemeanor theft charges and were ordered to pay $7,000. They also forfeited 940 pounds of frozen perch, which were donated to the Cleveland Food Bank for distribution to local soup kitchens. The plea agreements required the five defendants to testify against several other co-defendants in the case.
In December 2005, commercial fishermen Dale Trent and Craig Carr of Lake Fish, Inc. were found guilty of misdemeanor theft. Their business, Lake Fish, Inc., was found guilty of theft and operating as a criminal enterprise, both felonies. The defendants were ordered to pay $87,000 in restitution and donate 500 pounds of perch to a Sandusky soup kitchen. Owners and operators of several other commercial fishing businesses charged in the case have not yet appeared in court.