By Alex DeMetrick

BALTIMORE (WJZ)—It’s a poaching case that could bring prison time.  That’s unusual but then the charges are substantial.

Alex DeMetrick has more on the striped bass that’s landed four watermen in federal court.

The charges follow a four-year investigation and tens of thousands of pounds of striped bass allegedly poached from the Chesapeake.

Records must be kept to catch, move and sell seafood.

It’s especially true for Maryland watermen catching striped bass.

Because of strict quotas, accurate numbers are critical to protect spawning stocks.

Four watermen are facing federal charges because of what they allegedly did not report.

“What this is basically saying is more fish were taken than we thought were taken,” said Michael Luisi, DNR Fisheries.

The affidavit alleges the conspiracy worked like this: a defendant would report 1,547 pounds of striped bass to DNR while actually catching 15,310 pounds.

Between 2007 and 2011, that unreported catch totaled almost 186,000 pounds, bringing in nearly $500,000.

“This is essentially stealing from other people trying to make a living,” Luisi said.

After a four-year investigation, the case heading to federal court asserts the four defendants sold much of that poached fish to buyers in New York and that Michael Hayden Jr. allegedly committed witness intimidation.

“This should be seen as a strong message that poaching is not something we are going to tolerate,” Luisi said.

Three years ago, 13 million pounds of fish were found in poachers’ nets.

To protect the species from overfishing, the season was closed.

“It killed us. It killed our winter’s work,” a waterman said.

For honest watermen, they say closing the season is punishment for those who fish by the rules.

If convicted of conspiracy, the defendants face up to five years in prison and up to 20 for witness intimidation.

Maryland is closely monitored by federal regulators because the Chesapeake is the spawning ground for striped bass found up and down the East Coast.

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