WINTER HARBOR, Maine — A local seafood dealer has been sent to federal prison for more than two years for his role in a scheme to illegally harvest and conceal scallops, according to federal officials.
Christopher Byers, 42, pleaded guilty last December to illegally harvesting and helping to conceal nearly 80,000 pounds of scallops caught off the coast of New Jersey and Massachusetts in 2007 and 2008. Six fishing boat captains who illegally harvested the scallops and falsified their catch reports also have pleaded guilty but have yet to be sentenced, federal officials have said.
Last week, a federal judge in New Jersey sentenced Byers to serve 30 months in prison. Byers also was ordered to serve three years of supervised release after completing his prison term and to pay $520,371 in restitution for the value of the illegally harvested scallops.
Byers’ business, D.C. Air & Seafood, also is being held responsible for repaying the $520,371, federal officials have said. The company also was placed on probation for five years, during which time it will have to abide by the “terms of an environmental compliance plan to ensure all purchases and sales of fish comply with federal law,” federal prosecutors indicated in a prepared statement.
D.C. Air is prohibited from harvesting, possessing, buying or selling scallops while it is on probation.
Attempts Monday to contact Byers and his attorney, William Hughes of Atlantic City, New Jersey, were unsuccessful. A woman who answered the phone Monday afternoon at D.C. Air & Seafood in Winter Harbor said “no comment at this time” and hung up the phone.
The scallops were harvested from an area called the Elephant Trunk Access Area, which had been closed to fishing from July 2004 to March 2007 as part of a federal rotation management program geared toward rebuilding scallop stocks off the mid-Atlantic coast, according to federal officials.
The area was opened to fishing for approximately two weeks in early March 2007, in early July 2007, and again in March 2008, when the illegal harvesting took place. The catch limit set per trip for each vessel was 400 pounds, but single-trip catch totals for individual boats involved in the scheme ranged from 417 pounds to 1,841 pounds, according to the initial complaint filed in December 2011.
The case was prosecuted in New Jersey because that is where the boats unloaded their catch “during nighttime hours” onto trucks owned by Byers and D.C. Air, according to court documents. The illegally harvested scallops were sold to wholesale seafood dealers outside New Jersey for approximately $6 per pound, federal officials indicated.
According to data compiled by the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the average price Maine fishermen were paid for scallops in 2007 and 2008 was between $7 and $8 per pound.
Five of the six boat operators named by federal officials as co-conspirators in the scheme are from Maine. George Bamford of Harrington, Robert Hersey of Harspwell, Michael Johnson of Milbridge, James Leighton of Milbridge, Michael McKenna of Steuben and Daniel Mahoney of Gloucester, Massachusetts, each pleaded guilty in 2012 to filing false fishing reports and with tampering with those reports in order to obstruct the investigation.
Bamford and Leighton are scheduled to be sentenced in the next several weeks, according to information posted in a federal court system online database. Information about when the other defendants may be sentenced was not available Monday.
Byers and D.C. Air owned four of the fishing vessels involved, the names of which are Atlantic Hostage, EZ Rider, Promise Land and Undaunted. Hersey owned and operated the vessel Luke & Isabel and Mahoney owned and operated the vessel Moonraker, according to federal documents.
In February 2008, Byers and other defendants constructed hidden compartments on Atlantic Hostage and Promise Land for illegally harvested scallops, court documents indicate. The following month, scallops were hidden from federal law enforcement officials on the EZ Rider and Atlantic Hostage.