No bait needed for this catch
Two Massachusetts businessmen were convicted Friday of three felony charges each in federal court for unlawfully dealing in millions of dollars of live freshwater fish without the required state permits. The case illustrates the protection that state and federal wildlife law provide to our waters and wildlife – and the strong partnership vital to enforcing that protection.
In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement was alerted by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the Massachusetts Environmental Police that something wasn’t quite right at Michael’s Wholesale Bait of West Springfield, Mass.
Officers launched an investigation, finding that owners Michael and Paul Zombik were failing to obtain the necessary importation permits before transporting the fish into Massachusetts. It was discovered that the wholesalers were also were bringing live wild bait fish into the state from waters infested with zebra mussels and from areas with fish infected with the deadly virus viral hemorrhagic septicemia. One species of fish was protected by the state Endangered Species Act. The fish were then sold to vendors in other states.
Both the importing and selling of these fish violated the nation’s first far-reaching federal wildlife protection law — the Lacey Act. Passed in 1900 and amended several times since, the Lacey Act is a key tool in combating illegal trafficking in wildlife, fish and plants.
Under the Lacey Act, it is unlawful for someone to do pretty much anything with wildlife across state or country borders if they haven’t followed state or foreign law (technically, it’s unlawful to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce any fish or wildlife taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any law or regulation of U.S., tribal, state or foreign law). Those violations can result in serious fines and imprisonment. For example, the two Massachusetts men face up to five years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine on each count.
Skirting state regulations to move live fish increased the likelihood that diseases and invasive organisms would tag along with those fish, potentially wreaking havoc on the environment. Notorious examples include the zebra mussel, Asian carp and the white-nose syndrome disease.
“While we may never know for sure if the men introduced disease or invasive species, we do know that unregulated behavior, such as a disregard for the state permitting protocols that were put in place to protect the environment, could have a disastrous effect on fish populations and our ecosystem,” says special agent Tom Ricardi.
Preventing the spread of disease and invasive species takes critical partnerships between federal and state wildlife agencies, Ricardi says. The Lacey Act strengthens that partnership, allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help enforce state law, ultimately helping to protect the state’s natural resources from devastating diseases and invasive species.
The case was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Massachusetts Environmental Police, New York Bureau of Environmental Crimes investigation and the Connecticut Environmental Conservation Police.