By Meghan McCorkell

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — A commercial fisherman faces federal charges. He’s accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in rockfish from the Chesapeake Bay. Even worse, prosecutors say he threatened witnesses in the case.

He could spend up to 20 years in prison for it.

Meghan McCorkell explains what got the Eastern Shore man in hot water.

Commercial fisherman Michael Hayden is under investigation for a rockfish poaching scheme worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that’s not why he’s been arrested.

Officials say Michael Hayden went after the witnesses in that poaching case. Now he’s facing four federal counts of witness tampering.

“In this case, the cover-up may be worse than the crime for Mr. Hayden,” said Rod Rosenstein, U.S. Attorney.

Prosecutors say in the midst of a grand jury investigation, the Tilghman Island man went after three witnesses. According to a criminal complaint, he told one of them: “You rolled on me, [expletive], a man told me so. That’s OK, I will take care of your [expletive].”

“He threatened them, intimidated them and he told them to make false statements to federal investigators,” said Rosenstein.

Hayden is under investigation for illegally harvesting striped bass, a problem that’s plagued the Chesapeake Bay.

In 2011, state officials shut down rockfish season a month early due to several serious poaching incidents.

“It can be lucrative, done right. So it can only be more lucrative done wrong,” said Art Cox of the Anchor Bay East Marina.

Cox said he’s come across poachers’ nets filled with thousands of dead, rotting rockfish. He says it hurts the business for legitimate watermen and should concern all Marylanders.

“The average person goes out to dinner two or three nights a week. I mean, rockfish is a Maryland staple. It’s a delicacy. I mean, we all enjoy it,” said Cox.

But with massive poaching still going on, honest watermen are still feeling the effects.

The grand jury investigation against Hayden is still ongoing. So far, he has not yet been charged with any poaching offenses.

The Department of Natural Resources is taking steps to crack down on poaching, using sonar to detect nets underwater.


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