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.

This does not, however, explain how such a huge fish A which lurks anywhere from 1200 to 2000 feet below the water's surface A ended up on Prince's boat.

To understand how Prince landed the monster requires a lesson in what is called "deep-drop fishing," a recent offshoot of sport fishing that consists of dropping a weighted wire line down hundreds of feet, waiting for a fish to bite, then hoisting it to the surface with an electric reel.

Eric Prince is a long-time deep-drop devotee. In fact he was featured in an article titled "Deep Drop Delicacies" in the October 1992 issue of Florida Sportsman.

In the story, author Don Mann describes the excitement of pulling huge beasts from the deep. He relates, for instance, how the fishes' air bladders explode due to the pressure change, creating a "geyser of bubbles that announce their arrival." The fish arrive at the surface dead, their eyes bulging out of their swollen heads.

"It's a sport that is growing in popularity despite occasional criticism from purist sportsmen," Mann enthuses in the article. "Fishing in 500 to 1500 feet of water adds an exciting dimension to recreational angling. This is especially true lately, when so many shallow water species are becoming increasingly scarce.

"A big part of the deep-water enticement is the mystery," Mann continues. "There's a suspenseful wait as the electric reel turns. Exactly what was it nibbling your bait in the complete darkness a quarter-mile below your boat?"

Later, he adds, "My latest trip, which introduced me for the first time to exploding air bladders, Warsaw grouper, and depths exceeding a quarter-mile, started with an invitation from Dr. Eric Prince, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Miami.

"Eric was introduced to deep-dropping... many years ago. When Eric bought a new open fisherman, he promptly equipped it with a 10/0 Penn Senator and Elec-Tra-Mate 12-volt reel system. Recently, he added a 24-volt Lindgren motor to a 12/0 Senator. Ever since, he's been enjoying species at his dinner table that most of us only see in obscure marine textbooks."

Prince stresses that there was nothing illegal about his 1992 trip with Mann.

But Scott Quackenbush, chair of the biological science department at Florida International University and a marine biologist who has studied deep-water ecosystems, says he fears the potential impact of commercial deep-drop fishing.

"There is so little energy going into a deep-sea system that everything grows very slowly," he explains. "What that means is that when you remove something, the recovery time is very slow. It doesn't take long to ruin a fishery." (This is precisely what happened a few years ago, when commercial fishermen started harvesting wreckfish off the coast of South Carolina. Regulatory agents were forced to place severe limits on wreckfishing.)

Quackenbush emphasizes that he has no objection to recreational deep-drop fishermen such as Prince. At the same time, he points out that he doesn't approve of Prince's conduct last May.

"I live in fear of something like that happening to me," Quackenbush says. "That's why I force my friends to get fishing licenses, even if we're just fishing off the Keys. We have to be held to a higher standard, because if rascals like us won't follow the rules, how can Johnny Q. Public be expected to?" Quackenbush adds he even has posted articles about Prince's troubles on the bulletin board outside his office, "as a reminder to me and my students that no one is above the law in this regard.

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