Fish dealer sentenced for trafficking

A group of lake trout is shown. (Journal file photo)

BARAGA — John H. Cross III and John Cross Fisheries Inc. were sentenced last month in Kalamazoo for trafficking in illegally transported and sold lake trout, announced Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge for the Western District of Michigan.

Cross Fisheries also was sentenced for making false records about whitefish purchases. The court action took place April 1.

The two defendants previously had pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of violating the Lacey Act by knowingly selling and attempting to sell in interstate commerce lake trout, when they should have known the fish was possessed and sold in violation of underlying state law that prohibits any person from marketing, possessing or offering for sale any fish illegally taken from the relevant waters.

Cross Fisheries also pleaded guilty to one felony count of violating the Lacey Act by knowingly making a false record and account of whitefish that was intended to be sold and transported in interstate commerce.

Cross was ordered to serve 12 months in prison, intermittently during a five-year term of probation, for his role in trafficking lake trout. Cross Fisheries was sentenced to five years’ probation. Both defendants were ordered to pay roughly $1.032 million in restitution, jointly and severally, to the National Fish Hatcheries, which stock Lake Michigan with lake trout.

Cross Fisheries also was ordered to create and implement a compliance plan to prevent such violations from reoccurring.

“Purchasing illegally caught fish for interstate sale and then covering up the source of those fish by falsifying records is cheating, plain and simple — and where discovered, the Justice Department will seek to punish such conduct,” Clark said in a news release. “For three years, Cross Fisheries harmed law-abiding competitors and the American taxpayers who fund the stocking of Lake Michigan with trout, but that conduct has now come to an end.”

Birge said in a news release the federally funded stocking of fish and the regulations designed to preserve these natural and communal resources were treated as an opportunity for extra profit here and in other cases stemming from Operation Fishing for Funds.

“This was essentially stealing from competitors, the government and ultimately the future,” Birge said.

Edward Grace, assistant director of the Office of Law Enforcement, said in a news release: “We are pleased to see this long-term illegal commercialization come to an end. This type of large-scale wildlife trafficking can significantly impact the sustainability of the resources we are charged to protect. This is especially relevant because we have been working for years to restore the Great Lakes fishery.”

According to documents filed in court, between September 2011 and October 2013, Cross and Cross Fisheries repeatedly purchased lake trout from “Fisherman A,” who defendants knew and should have known to be a tribal fisherman who fished from a boat that was converted to trap net gear at taxpayers’ expense and thus could not lawfully harvest lake trout. Cross and Cross Fisheries made and submitted records and accounts of these purchases stating that the seller was “Fisherman B,” who defendants knew and should have known to be a licensed gill net fisherman who could legally harvest lake trout.

Between September 2011 and October 2013, Cross Fisheries, through its officers and employees, including Cross, made roughly 42 purchases of lake trout from Fisherman A, totaling around 48,500 pounds, all of which was falsely reported by Cross Fisheries on its wholesale fish dealer’s purchase records as being from Fisherman B’s gill net license, and subsequently offered for sale and sold by Cross and others in interstate commerce.

This sentencing is one of the final pending cases arising from Operation Fishing for Funds, an undercover operation run for approximately two years by special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This undercover operation investigated the illegal harvest and sale of fish, primarily walleye and trout, taken from the Great Lakes.

As part of the investigation, USFWS agents established and operated an undercover wholesale fish business in Baraga named the Upper Peninsula North Fish Co. UPNFC bought and sold fish wholesale from individuals across the region, and also sold fish retail.

The operation has resulted in 21 convictions, seven in tribal courts and 14 in federal courts. To date, over $1.6 million in total restitution has been ordered to the USFWS National Fish Hatcheries and tribal fish hatcheries. This amount reflects the funds needed to restock hatchery fingerlings necessary to replace the illegally harvested fish.