As police investigated allegations that a Maryland fisherman was poaching rockfish, he was threatening witnesses in the hope the trouble would go away, federal authorities allege in charges unsealed Wednesday.
The case against the fisherman, Michael D. Hayden Jr., 41, stems from a continuing grand jury investigation into a poaching scheme involving fish valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to court documents and testimony. Rockfish is a regional term for striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay.
Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Joseph P. Gill called Hayden's actions "crimes against our natural resources and against the citizens of Maryland."
Hayden, a waterman from Tilghman Island, has not been charged with any poaching offenses. But Assistant U.S. Attorney P. Michael Cunningham said at a hearing Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore that the grand jury is continuing to investigate. Hayden's attorney declined to comment after the hearing.
Authorities say Hayden contacted the first person he believed to be a witness in March 2012.
"You rolled on me, [expletive], a man told me so, that's OK, I will take care of [you]," he told one witness, authorities said in documents. "Don't lie to me."
Last month, after the grand jury had taken up the case, Hayden allegedly ordered one witness not to say anything and another to stick to a cooked-up story.
"It was hard to keep track of what lie to tell to who," one witness told a federal wildlife enforcement agent, authorities said.
The witness told Hayden that he would lie to the grand jury, saying that fish discovered on their boat by law enforcement officials had been caught using a fishing pole that fell overboard, authorities said.
The exact motivation for telling that story is not spelled out in the document, but Maryland closely regulates the catching of striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay, with different quotas and rules depending on whether a net or a fishing line is used.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Sullivan agreed to release Hayden under supervision but warned him that witness tampering is a serious offense, whether the subject is hard drugs or fish.
"Any conduct in violation of this order, you will be on the fastest trip here from the Eastern Shore," Sullivan said.
Poaching has been a recurring problem with striped bass, which are valued by commercial and recreational fishermen.
An eight-year sting investigation by federal and state agencies that ended in 2010 led to the conviction of 19 men for poaching and selling 1.6 million pounds of rockfish on the black market.
The next year, state Natural Resources Police found more than 12 tons of striped bass in illegally set nets off Kent Island.
No one was arrested, but authorities raided the home of one fisherman and closed the commercial fishing season early.
Later that year, the state cited 60 recreational fishermen for striped-bass violations.
After the 2011 investigation, Cunningham said, authorities began looking at a community of fishermen on the Eastern Shore.
"In the context of natural resources cases, these are serious violations," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.