The One That Didn't Get Away

A National Marine Fisheries Service scientist hooks some big violations

There were a number of odd things about the anonymous tip that was called into the Florida Marine Patrol on the afternoon of May 19, 1994.

The patrol's Lt. Angel Vega discovered odd thing number one when he arrived at Key Biscayne's Crandon Marina and found Dr. Eric Prince, a senior scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), hitching his 22-foot boat, Orca, to a trailer. Once onboard Vega found a gargantuan wreckfish and twenty pounds of grouper and snapper fillets, all in violation of federal law. Prince, age 48, had just returned from several days of fishing off Bimini in the Bahamas.

Odd thing number two was that the tip came from one of Prince's own colleagues at the NMFS's Southeast Fisheries Science Center on Virginia Key.

The third and oddest thing was that this colleague based his call on a hunch.

"I didn't have any evidence that he'd broken any laws," says the tipster, who fears disclosing his name would lead Prince to seek revenge. "But Eric has a history of disregarding fisheries laws, especially on his little fishing trips. So when I found out he was coming back from a trip to the Bahamas, I sort of took a chance in making the call."

While refusing to discuss details of the May 1994 incident, Prince bristles at the notion that he has broken fisheries laws in the past. "That's ridiculous," he scoffs. "Those accusations are inaccurate and libelous." Prince has no record of previous offenses, and long-time acquaintances, such as Albia Dugger, editor of Sport Fishing magazine, describe him as "a scientist of the highest integrity."

But there is no denying that his bust has been a major embarrassment, both to himself and to the agency where he has worked for fifteen years as a billfish researcher (marlin, sailfish, swordfish, among others).

"That a research scientist has been arrested on reasonably major fishery violations puts a black eye on the entire fish management process," notes John Brownlee, chairman of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the Charleston, South Carolina-based body that oversees federal waters along the Southeastern seaboard.

Prince was charged with four civil violations. He settled the first, his failure to report his arrival back at Crandon to U.S. Customs, by paying a $200 fine to Customs. He faced a maximum fine of $5000.

The other three were forwarded to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Washington, D.C.

Jay Johnson, NOAA deputy general counsel, says he can not remember another instance in which a senior NMFS scientist has been caught in violation of fisheries laws. "It's not something you see very frequently," he observes.

Prince's possession of the wreckfish (a deep-dwelling species similar to a grouper) and the fillets are violations of the Magnuson Act, a federal conservation measure enacted in 1976. Each violation carries a maximum penalty of a $100,000 fine. Because Prince did not seek permission from the Bahamian government to catch the wreckfish, he also was cited for breaking the Lacey Act, which prohibits U.S. fishermen from importing fish caught in violation of foreign law. This charge carries a maximum penalty of $10,000.

Last year Prince hired an attorney to fight the charges. NOAA officials originally indicated they were going to levy a fine of $1500 for possession of the wreckfish. But as part of a settlement agreement signed in late January, the two Magnuson Act violations were reduced to written warnings, carrying no fine at all. Prince paid a $1000 fine on the Lacey violation.

Brad Brown, director of the lab where Prince works, declined to comment on his employee's situation. Brown says he is awaiting a recommendation from NOAA's office of personnel before taking any administrative action.

Prince himself refuses to discuss how he wound up with his illegal haul onboard. "The whole experience has been traumatic for me," he says. "I can't say anything about it right now."

But Prince previously has discussed his violations with other reporters. Last May he told Miami Herald reporter Susan Cocking that he was unaware of the federal law prohibiting the possession of fillets in U.S. waters. "It's a pretty obscure law," she quoted him as saying.

"The notion that this is an obscure law is nonsense, just nonsense," counters the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council's Brownlee. "Most any fisherman who goes over to the Bahamas knows about that law. They may ignore it, but they know about it." Prince told the Herald he travels to the Bahamas to fish several times a year.

Prince also explained to the Herald that he didn't call Customs right away because of all the hubbub on the dock over his huge wreckfish. He kept this catch, he said, as a scientific specimen, even though he didn't have a permit to do so.

NOAA lawyer Jay Johnson says there is some evidence to support Prince's claim: "He had apparently called ahead to his lab in Miami to tell them he would need a special saw to cut out the fish's otolith bone." By counting the number of rings on this bone, located in the inner ear, scientists can determine the age of a specimen. Dr. Charles Manooch, a NMFS marine biologist based in Beaufort, North Carolina, has been studying the aging and growth of wreckfish. He says that Prince called him in the spring of 1993 to offer to obtain samples for him.

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