Something seemed off to a Wareham harbormaster as a pickup truck on Sunday was pulling a 21-foot fishing boat named Striper up the Tempest Knob boat ramp.
The harbormaster called for backup from a state Environmental Police officer, who searched the vessel and found eight coolers filled with 209 black sea bass — a massive, illegal haul. More than half the fish were also undersized.
The seizure of so many black sea bass, which spawn this time of year from Nantucket Sound to Buzzards Bay, is part of a growing problem of illegal fishing of the vulnerable species, state officials said.
“We’re talking about orders of magnitude higher than any boat can catch,” said Dan
McKiernan, deputy director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries. “These are egregious violations of the limits.”
While black sea bass are believed to have been increasing in numbers in recent years — the state each year allows commercial fishermen to catch 352,000 pounds and recreational fishermen to catch 270,000 pounds — the species is vulnerable to overfishing when they spawn.
The state used to allow recreational fishermen to catch 20 black sea bass per person on every trip to sea, but that was reduced five years ago to five per person.
“The amount of pressure that was being put on these fish was extraordinary,” said Major Patrick Moran of the Massachusetts Environmental Police. “We were going over our quotas, and they weren’t getting a chance to lay their eggs.”
The five passengers on the Striper, one of whom was a minor, would have been allowed to catch only 10 fish, 15 inches or larger.
The boat’s skipper, a 43-year-old Woburn man whose name wasn’t released, only held a commercial fishing license and wasn’t allowed to catch sea bass recreationally, Moran said.
Moran said his officers have found “an extensive black market” in black sea bass, which he called a “much sought-after fish.”
Last year, environmental police cited 10 fishermen who illegally caught more than 150 fish at a time, he said.
The fish can sell on the market for up to $5 a pound.
Moran was happy to see the seizure, but he said it reflected significant violations of state law. He estimated that for every violator, at least three boats get away with an illegal haul.
Earlier this month, in Mattapoisett, Environmental Police issued similar citations to the owner of another boat, which illegally brought in 153 black sea bass.
Police issued a criminal summons to the boat’s owner and seized his boat, trailer, and fishing gear.
The passengers on the Striper were issued civil citations for fishing without a saltwater recreational license, possession of over-the-limit sea bass, and possession of undersized sea bass.
The fish were sold and the proceeds are likely to go to the state.