Willis faces up to 5 years in jail, $250,000 fine

A Carteret County fisherman pleaded guilty Monday in federal court to charges related to the illegal harvest and sale of 3,000 pounds of Atlantic striped bass in federal waters in 2010.

Dewey W. Willis Jr., 39, of Newport entered the guilty plea in federal court in Wilmington. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 12 and Willis faces a possible maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

A special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received information in February 2010 that commercial trawlers were illegally fishing for Atlantic striped bass in federal waters off the coast of North Carolina. There has been a ban since 1990 on the harvesting of Atlantic striped bass in the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone, which spans three miles and 200 miles seaward of the Atlantic coastline, according to the background information.

NOAA sought the assistance of the Coast Guard and a patrol vessel intercepted one of 17 trawlers in the EEZ, boarded the vessel Lady Samaira and found 173 striped bass aboard. The captain later admitted to taking the fish from the EEZ.

Given the number of commercial trawlers in the same area, NOAA conducted an analysis of electronic data and written reports from the vessels. Based on the review, it was determined that between Jan. 31 and Feb. 3, 2010, Willis, who was captain of the commercial trawler Helen W. Smith at the time, had harvested more than 3,000 pounds of Atlantic striped bass and sold the fish to dealers in Wanchese and Beaufort.

“The illegal poaching of striped bass by commercial fishermen has a major impact on the survival of this iconic fish resource and has the potential to devastate the future livelihoods of law abiding commercial fishermen,” John C. Cruden, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement. “(Monday’s) plea agreement demonstrates the department’s dedication to pursuing those who fail to respect the law and fail to adequately monitor their harvest to stay within legal limits.”

Overfishing and poor environmental conditions have led to efforts to preserve the fish stocks. In 2015, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, along with other states, reduced by 25 percent the catch limits of Atlantic striped bass in the Atlantic Ocean and Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River areas.

The investigation into this case of illegal harvesting was conducted by law enforcement officers of NOAA along with the Coast Guard Investigative Service. The case has been prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Banumathi Rangarajan and Trial Attorney Shennie Patel of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section.