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U.S. fines North Cape May scallop operation $935,000

By RICHARD DEGENER Staff Writer, (609) 463-6711, E-Mail/Press of Atlantic City

A Cape May County seafood dealer has been assessed almost $1 million in fines for allegedly landing too many Atlantic sea scallops and then falsifying reports to cover up the crime.

Penalties assessed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, following a joint investigation with the N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife, also include the forfeiture of certain fishing rights.

NOAA spokesman Mark Oswell, calling it one of the largest fines ever in the scallop fishery, said the action is against Capt'n Charlie's Clams, a company owned and operated by Charles F. Burke Jr. of the North Cape May section of Lower Township, as well as three commercial fishing vessels he owns, the captains of the boats, and his wife, Irene Burke. The fishing operation is actually in Middle Township near Richardson Sound but Oswell said the business is run out of the Burkes' home.

"It's one of the largest cases for scallops as far as a penalty. If everyone fished as Mr. Burke did, then we would run out of scallops. This fishery is a renewable resource, but fishermen have to do their part. They have to catch within the guidelines to have the scallop fishery be sustainable," Oswell said.

Burke did not return phone calls on Monday.

Oswell said he has filed for a hearing before an administrative law judge, which is his right after the federal government issues a NOVA, or Notice of Violation and Assessment, but a hearing date has not been set.

NOAA issued multiple NOVAs to Burke. All told, they total civil penalties of $935,000. Oswell said the six-month investigation revealed numerous illegal fishing practices, including exceeding landing limits, submitting false fishing trip reports, filing false dealer reports, failing to provide required records, receiving illegally obtained scallops, making false oral statements, and interfering with a federal investigation.

One NOVA assesses a $325,000 fine against the business Capt'n Charlie's Clams and a two-year ban on dealing with any federally regulated fish species.

A second NOVA assesses a $340,000 fine against the fishing vessel Irene B. III, a scallop boat owned by Burke and his wife Irene. The NOVA also says the vessel cannot fish for federally regulated species for three years. It also bans vessel captain Richard Geronimo from ever fishing again in any federal fisheries. Oswell said Geronimo now lives in Cape May County but he has a long history of violating fishing laws in other East Coast ports "from New Bedford to North Carolina."

A third NOVA assesses a $120,000 penalty to the fishing vessel Capt. Charlie, which is owned by Burke. Under this NOVA, vessel captain Richard Morel can't land federally regulated species for eight months and the vessel can't fish for six months. Oswell said Morel is originally from Virginia but now lives in Cape May County.

A third boat owned by Burke, the fishing vessel Two Brothers, was assessed a $150,000 fine. The boat can't fish for one year and the captain, Burke's son Charles Burke III, can't fish for 300 days. Irene Burke was charged with interfering with a federal investigation.

Civil fines for violating NOAA regulations vary widely depending on the violation, and Oswell said scallop violations of this magnitude are rare. A group of fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico was fined more than $430,000 in 1999 for catching red snapper after the season ended, and the dealer who purchased the fish was fined $800,000. Two Houston fishermen were fined $439,000 in 2000 for fishing while their permits were sanctioned and falsifying landing reports.

The Burke vessels were harvesting scallops in a controversial program that allows landings of the shellfish mainly as a by-catch in other fisheries. They are allowed 400 pounds of scallop meats per day. The fishery is controversial because fishermen whose main fishery is scallops have alleged some boats are not landing them as a by-catch but are actually targeting them and then exceeding the allowed catch.

The by-catch landings, called "general category landings," at one point represented about 2 percent of the East Coast scallop catch, but some believe it has skyrocketed to as much as 20 percent. The increase comes at a time when the federal government is cutting back the days at sea by full-time scallop fishermen.

Oswell said Burke was easily exceeding the limits.

"There were multiple attempts to conceal 2,300 pounds on the dock," Oswell said.

Special Agent Michael Henry of NOAA's Fisheries Service Office for Law Enforcement said Burke falsified reports to try to cover up illegal landings. The reports are required by federal law and are needed so the fishery can be properly managed.

Dan Cohen, a Port of Cape May seafood dealer who owns scallop boats, welcomed the news.

"It's good the government is enforcing these rules. We're harvesting a limited resource, so when he's cheating he's actually taking from us," Cohen said.

The New England Fishery Management Council is in charge of managing scallops and has reported a 300 percent increase in general category landings in 2004. Full-time scallop fishermen, meanwhile, have seen their days fishing and crew sizes cut back by the government. Beginning in 1993, they were cut back to 220 days at sea with a nine-man crew and in 2005 this was reduced to 100 days at sea with a seven-man crew.

Cohen said scallop stocks are rising and this is bringing the shellfish closer to the beach and within reach of smaller boats that could go out fishing for something else but legally land 400 pounds of scallops per day. This has helped convince smaller fishing operations to target them.

"Scallopers raised hackles with the government and said this was wrong. Enforcement looked into it and found we were right," Cohen said.

The issue could result in the smaller vessels having to install VMS, or Vessel Monitoring Systems, that allow the government to know where a boat is at any time. The full-time scallopers already have them.

To e-mail Richard Degener at The Press:

[email protected]
 

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Need the phone numbers for reporting illegal activities in federal water. Anyone have them handy?
 

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Found it
Northeast Division

Andy Cohen, Special Agent-in-Charge
Mark Micele, Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge
Todd Dubois, Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge
1 Blackburn Dr
Gloucester, MA 01930
(978) 281-9213
 
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