Gaston L. Saunders, 53, of Wanchese, pleaded guilty on Aug. 3 to federal charges regarding the illegal harvest and sale of Atlantic striped bass from federal waters.

The charges stem from a 2010 Lacey Act investigation by NOAA, assisted by the Coast Guard. Since 1990, there has been a ban on harvesting Atlantic striped bass in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which spans between three miles and 200 miles seaward of the coastline. Eleven other commercial fishermen have entered guilty pleas for conduct uncovered in the investigation.

Saunders also pled guilty to one count of federal tax evasion and three counts of failure to file federal taxes. In the plea agreement, he agreed to pay restitution in the amount of $544,946.35 payable to the Internal Revenue Service.

A sentencing hearing will be set at a later date. Saunders faces a total maximum sentence of 13 years imprisonment and/or a $800,000 fine.

According to the Department of Justice, further investigation revealed that, despite earning a substantial income from his commercial fishing, Saunders failed to file a tax return since 1999. Starting in 2010, and in order to avoid IRS collection efforts, Saunders directed his wife to deposit his fishing income into their joint bank account, then withdraw the money the same day and used those funds to purchase cashier’s checks, primarily in denominations of less than $10,000 each. His wife would place the cashier’s checks in a safe deposit box, cashing them over the years as the couple needed money. Between October 2010 and August 2014, Saunders caused his wife to deposit at least 20 fishing income checks totally $432,419.20 and converted the money to cashier’s checks. In total, Saunders and his wife failed to pay $544,946.35 in federal taxes.

NOAA determined that between Jan. 19, 2009 and Feb. 9, 2010 Saunders, then captain of the trawler Little Sammie, harvested approximately 13,613 pounds of Atlantic striped bass from the EEZ, which he sold to a fish dealer in Engelhard. The estimated fair market retail value of the 13,613 pounds of illegally harvested fish exceeds $108,000. Saunders also submitted false statements to NOAA for two of three fishing trips, falsely claiming he caught the fish in state waters.

“These prosecutions make clear that efforts to circumvent laws regulating commercial fishing, which are implemented to sustain the species for the benefit of future generations, will be enforced vigorously,” said U.S. Attorney John Stuart Bruce for the Eastern District of North Carolina. “We are pleased to partner with our colleagues in DOJ’s Environmental Crimes Section to prosecute these important cases.”

Manny Antonaras, Deputy Speical Agent in Charge for NOAA’s Southeast Division’s Office of Law Enforcement stated, "NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement is committed to ensuring a level playing field for law abiding fishermen and coastal communities that rely upon our nation’s living marine resources. When people cheat the system, it hurts those who follow the rules the most."

“Tax evasion is not a victimless crime. Saunders’ attempt to evade tax by hiding income and failing to file tax returns is a theft from the American public who are paying their fair share,” said Thomas J. Holloman, III, Special Agent in Charge, IRS Criminal Investigation. “We are proud to work with our law enforcement partners to investigate and prosecute individuals who attempt to enrich themselves by fraudulent means.”

Credit –– Outer Banks Sentinel