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Owner of Maine Seafood Company Gets Prison Time for Scallop Conspiracy

Byers utilized trucks from his seafood business to transport thousands of pounds of unreported Atlantic sea scallops.

Score one for the scallops!

Christopher Byers, the owner of a Maine seafood company, was sentenced to 30 months in prison on September 4, 2014, for his role in conspiring with six fishing boat operators to prepare false reports to conceal the overharvesting of 79,666 pounds of Atlantic sea scallops. Byers’ company, D.C. Air & Seafood, agreed to pay $520,371 in restitution to the United States and to be placed on probation for 5 years, during which the company will not be allowed to participate in the scallop industry.

During routine patrols of commercial fishing docks, conservation officers from the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife became suspicious of several vessels that appeared to be over-harvesting scallops regularly. During this same time, Special Agents from NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement received information from multiple sources which appeared to corroborate the information received from New Jersey officers. NOAA partnered with these officers to conduct a covert night surveillance operation which led to the discovery of Byers’ method of operation, seizure of illegal scallops, identity of the suspects and vessels involved.

Lieutenant Jason Snellbaker of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, Marine Enforcement Unit noted the importance of cooperation between agencies noting that “[T]his was a great example of law enforcement agencies working together toward a common goal. The involvement of both agencies in the case was crucial in identifying the illegal activity and conducting an investigation that ultimately led to the removal of the conspiring parties from the industry.”

Through the investigative efforts of NOAA agents, additional sources were discovered which revealed prior year violations; this led to the issuance of a criminal search warrant served upon the parent company D.C. Air & Seafood. Evidence obtained from the search warrant identified additional suspects and gross violations of scallop overharvesting during 2007-2008. 

Six fishing boat operators conspired with Byers to prepare false reports to conceal the overharvesting of Atlantic sea scallops. Pictured are bags of scallops confiscated from one of the fishing boats.

Anthony Forestiere, Special Agent for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, Northeast Division, and lead agent on the case pointed out the impact on the honest fisherman, saying “[T]hese individuals flooded the market with illegal catch and adversely impacted the scallop industry. Removing Mr. Byers and his associates will benefit those honest, hardworking fishermen who play by the rules and improve the long-term sustainability of the fishery.”

D.C. Air & Seafood purchased Atlantic sea scallops harvested by federally permitted vessels off the mid-Atlantic coast in an area that had been closed to fishing as part of an area rotation management program to rebuild the scallop population. The area was open to limited scallop fishing by federally permitted vessels for 2-week periods in March 2007, July 2007, and March 2008.

During those periods, individual vessels were restricted to harvesting no more than 400 pounds of scallops per vessel per trip. Byers admitted that his company and the six boat operators failed to report nearly 80,000 pounds of scallops harvested in that area for purchase by D.C. Air & Seafood and prepared false fishing vessel trip reports.

The six boat operators involved in this case previously pled guilty and await sentencing. Expect more news about this case as sentences continue to be handed down.

Story by John Thibodeau, communications specialist for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. To contact him, please call 301-427-8234 or email john.thibodeau@noaa.gov.