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U.S. Fisherman Could Get 20 Years for Lobster Offences

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NORTH DARTMOUTH, Massachusetts -- A North Dartmouth man who was the captain of two New Bedford-based fishing vessels has pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act - the federal wildlife trafficking statute, making false statements to Coast Guard officials and obstruction of justice in connection with a four-year-long conspiracy of commanding his crew members to remove the eggs of female lobsters so that they could be sold in port.

United States Attorney Michael J. Sullivan; Andrew Cohen, Special Agent in Charge of the Northeast Enforcement Division of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, Office of Law Enforcement; Captain Mark Landry, Chief of Law Enforcement, First Coast Guard District; and James Hanlon, Acting Director of the Massachusetts Environmental Police, announced today that Jose Silva, age 50, of North Dartmouth, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge George A. O'Toole to an Indictment charging him with one count of conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act, two counts of violating the Lacey Act, one count of making a false statement to Coast Guard boarding officers, and one count of obstruction of justice.

At the plea hearing the prosecutor told the Court that, had the case proceeded to trial, the evidence would have proven that over a four-year period, Silva, as the captain of the New Bedford-based fishing vessels Lutador and Lutador II, commanded his crew to remove the eggs of thousands of female lobsters and "v-notched" female lobsters. Federal and state law prohibit the taking of female egg-bearing lobsters as a way of protecting the viability of the lobster fishery. Federal law requires that fisherman who catch female lobsters return them to the sea. Lobster fisherman customarily cut a v-shaped notch in the tales of female lobsters so that other fishermen who later catch the same lobsters will know that they are females capable of bearing eggs. Federal law also prohibits the taking of v-notched lobsters.

Silva knew that catching egg-bearing and v-notched lobsters was illegal, yet during numerous voyages over a four-year period, he instructed his crew to retain egg-bearing and v- notched lobsters, "scrub" or "wash" off their eggs with a hose, and store them on board for eventual sale in port. Silva later instructed his crew that they should tell no one about the practice, and directed them to store the lobsters in hidden compartments in the vessel's fish hold so that the Coast Guard would not discover them.

On March 7, 2004, the Coast Guard boarded the Lutador II near Quick's Hole, Massachusetts as it was returning to New Bedford. During the boarding, Silva told the Coast Guard that there were no lobsters in the vessel's fish hold, when in fact he knew there were hundreds. After the Coast Guard discovered the lobsters during the course of their inspection, Silva, submitted to the Coast Guard an inventory of his catch on which he knowingly understated the amount of lobster on board. He later told crew members to tell the Coast Guard that the crew removed lobster eggs during the trip without Silva's knowledge. In connection with this last trip, SILVA paid an administrative fine to the National Marine Fisheries Service's Office of Law Enforcement.

Judge O'Toole scheduled sentencing for March 22, 2006. Silva faces up to 5 years' imprisonment for each count, except the obstruction of justice count, for which he would face a maximum of 20 years' imprisonment. Each of the counts also carry a potential fine of $250,000 and 3 years supervised release.

The case was investigated by the Northeast Enforcement Division of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, Office of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Massachusetts Environmental Police. It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jon Mitchell in Sullivan's Economic Crimes Unit.

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