MILWAUKEE — A Wisconsin company that processes Great Lakes fish for sale worldwide has been caught up in a federal investigation into the illegal trafficking of lake trout, lake sturgeon, whitefish and walleye in Wisconsin and Michigan, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Saturday.
Federal court records show U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents set up a fake fish store in L’Anse, Michigan, recorded conversations on boats and in bars around Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, and recently raided Dan’s Fish in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, in Door County, the Journal Sentinel reported.
No criminal charges have been filed. Search warrants served as part of the investigation were recently unsealed.
Federal law limits the commercial trade of wildlife taken illegally under state, federal or tribal laws. Each violation involving at least $350 worth of fish is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Kaye Hooker, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office for Michigan’s Western District, said several federal, state and tribal authorities we working “to maintain and safeguard a healthy fishery” but declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.
Rick Coad, an attorney for Dan Schwarz, the owner of Dan’s Fish, decline to comment Saturday but pointed to a statement given earlier to the Door County Register saying the company is fully cooperating with an investigation into “potential violations of regulatory issues.”
Federal court records show agents served the warrants on businesses and fishing vessels in Michigan and Wisconsin. The fishermen and business owners named in the warrants include members of various Indian tribes and non-tribal fish dealers.
Beside Daní’ Fish, the warrants also named Peterson’s Fish Market in Hancock, Michigan, John Cross Fish Market in Charlevoix, Michigan, and the Beaver Island Fresh Fish Market on Beaver Island, Michigan.
People who answered the phone Saturday at the Peterson and Cross markets said no one was available for comment. A number listed for the Beaver Island market was disconnected.
Fishermen and wildlife officials have long been concerned about diminishing catches of lake trout, sturgeon and walleye in the upper Great Lakes. Suspecting violators, federal agents went undercover in 2012, posing as an Upper Peninsula wholesaler, buying and selling tons of what agents allege was illegally harvested fish from lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron.
According to the documents, agents posing as the owners of UP North Fish Co. sold several suspect catches to Schwarz in Sturgeon Bay. Over 19 months, there were more than 50 sales, amounting to 94,000 pounds of fish, nearly half of which was illegal. The fish, trout and whitefish, had a retail value of nearly $150,000.
Schwarz told one agent it was better not to know much about where fish come from.
“I just buy fish — don’ít know where they came from, I don’t know how they got there, I don’t care,” Schwarz told an agent during a secretly recorded conversation in 2013.