Department of Fish and Game (DFG) wardens today arrested 14 suspects during targeted raids on illegal striped bass poaching operations in the Bay-Delta region. Concluding a two-month poaching investigation, wardens served four search warrants in Sacramento and Elk Grove to make the arrests, interviewed 35 other people and seized five sport-fishing vessels.
“These cases represent the tip of a very large iceberg,” said Nancy Foley, DFG Chief of Enforcement. “Once wardens identified the magnitude of the illegal activity we were determined to shut it down. While we recognize others are involved in the commercialization of striped bass, the core groups are tenacious opportunists who chased after monetary gain and cared nothing for the natural resources they’ve impacted.”
Early today, more than 60 wardens divided into takedown teams and contacted suspects, including three husband-and-wife suspects, at their homes. Wardens also contacted employees of a supermarket and a restaurant in South Sacramento. Additional arrests may occur as the investigation continues.
The investigation was a joint effort between DFG’s Special Operations Unit and wardens with the Delta Bay Enhanced Enforcement Program, said Lt. Kathy Ponting, leader of the undercover unit. Ponting, whose investigators focus primarily on the poaching of California’s natural resources, identified the takedowns by designated codenames. Suspects in custody include:
* “Operation Farmer’s Market,” Kiem Van Nguyen, 50, and his wife Luyen Thi Nguyen, 45, both of Sacramento. Two additional suspects were arrested on unrelated drug charges;
* “Operation “Speedy Delivery,” Ly Van Nguyen, 49, and his wife Cuc Thi Nguyen, 48, both of Sacramento;
* “Operation Bass Master,” Luan Van Dao, 44, and his wife Mung Thi Bui, 42, both of Sacramento. Also taken into custody were Tuan Anh Dao, 22, Thuan Nguyen, 29, and Chichi Peng, 25, all of Sacramento, and Tung Van Nguyen, 80, of Elk Grove;
* “Operation Tailgate Party,” Dong Van Doan, 66, and Hop V. Doan, 29, both of Sacramento.
Each suspect faces felony conspiracy charges as well as counts of illegal sales of sport-caught fish, and over limits of striped bass.
Ponting said the suspects processed the fish, delivered it to homes or businesses, and accepted cash in the transactions. At times, wardens watched as suspects set up a temporary shop in a parking lot, complete with fish scales.
“The only thing the suspects didn’t have was a cash register sitting on the tailgate; that’s how organized these operations were,” Ponting said. Investigators saw that the suspects would stash the poached fish in hidden compartments aboard their fishing vessels. They also saw that while some of the suspects sold the fish daily, nine to 10 fish at a time, others would stockpile before making transactions. The suspects sold the fish for up to $2.50 per pound.
While not native to California, striped bass have inhabited the Sacramento-San Joaquin estuary for more than a century. The sport-fishing season is year-round but a Bay Delta Sport Fishing Enhancement Stamp is required. Legal size is 18 inches and bag limit is two fish. Estuaries are vital to the life cycle of striped bass, which use them as nurseries. In the fall, striped bass migrate upstream from coastal waters and San Francisco Bay to the Delta.
The population of legal-sized striped bass in the Sacramento-San Joaquin estuary decreased substantially during a 30-year period from the early 1960s to early 1990s, but had rebounded somewhat. However, population estimates for 2002 and 2003 show a clear decline from earlier years. DFG recognizes there has been a declining trend and fishery biologists anticipate further declines attributable to poor production of first-year fish.
Wardens said the poaching price for striped bass in the Sacramento area fluctuated depending on the size and weight of the catch. In November, suspects sold 19 fish for $200. Another time they sold 10 fish for $300.
DFG investigators have worked striped bass cases in the Bay-Delta before, but the thinning ranks of wardens and ongoing pressures against other wildlife resources has hampered enforcement efforts. However, the magnitude of the four operations drew the attention of Delta-patrolling wardens and legitimate anglers. Because the violations occurred in the Delta and involves Delta species, DFG receives special funding available through the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority. Several calls came to DFG’s CalTIP hotline. CalTIP, “Californians Turn in Poachers and Polluters,” is DFG’s confidential witness program to encourage the public to provide information leading to the arrest of poachers and polluters.
“We received several complaints from fishermen who saw the many over-limits taken which indicated illegal commercialization,” Ponting said. “These people were taking away from the legal and legitimate fisherman.”
News Media: Today at 2 p.m., DFG will display evidence gathered during the arrests and searches. The exhibit will be at DFG’s Office of Training and Development, 1740 N. Market Blvd., in the Natomas area of Sacramento, just east of Arco Arena.