Mississippi paddlefish
Federal officials convicted two men of poaching paddlefish from Mississippi; (photo/Shutterstock)

Feds Slap Paddlefish Poacher With Prison Sentence

Federal courts convicted two men for illegally fishing in Mississippi, sentencing one of them to time behind bars.

A part-time professional angler from Kentucky will spend 6 months in prison and pay $20,000 after poaching paddlefish from a Mississippi lake, federal officials said.

James Lawrence “Lance” Freeman, 27, and another Kentucky man, Marcus Harrell, 34, traveled to Mississippi multiple times in late 2018 to illegally harvest paddlefish, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Investigators found they took the paddlefish from Moon Lake in Coahoma County, Miss., which was closed to paddlefish harvest. The poachers then returned to Kentucky to sell the fish to commercial processors, falsely claiming that the animals came from waterways where it’s legal to harvest them, officials said.

Ultimately, the two men drew felony charges of violating the Lacey Act. The federal law bans the trafficking of fish, wildlife, or plants that are illegally taken, transported, or sold.

Harrell received a sentence of 5 years probation and a $7,500 fine. Freeman, who had competed on the Major League Fishing circuit, will have to serve time in prison.

Violating the Lacey Act carries a maximum penalty of up to 5 years of jail time.

Feds Take Poaching ‘Seriously’

The law enforcement division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated the case. Assistant Director Edward Grace highlighted his agency’s cooperation with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, which helped bring the poachers to justice. He emphasized that the division takes poaching “seriously.”

“The investigation involving the two defendants who were involved in the unlawful harvest and dealing of paddlefish roe is no exception. We will continue to work closely with our state partners to conduct these important joint investigations,” he said.

On top of his prison sentence and fine, Freeman also faces 3 years of supervised release. Authorities also banned him from all fishing, both commercial and recreational, for 5 years. His scheduled prison report date is Nov. 28, officials said.

Authorities banned Harrell from fishing or harvesting roe (used in caviar) in Mississippi for 5 years.

“Thanks for the joint effort by all agencies state and federal that were involved, it truly sends a message that unlawful acts such as this will not be tolerated in our state and that we will use all the manpower and equipment available to protect our natural resources,” said Col. Jerry Carter of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

Last of Its Kind

The American paddlefish, or spoonbill, is the last surviving paddlefish species left on earth, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). Its closest relative, the Chinese paddlefish, officially became extinct in July. Paddlefish can grow to 7 feet long and weigh 160 pounds or more.

american paddlefish
(Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr)

The MDC attributes the decline in paddlefish numbers to stream channelization, levee construction, and bottomland drainage. That’s because they rely on free-flowing rivers with oxbows and backwaters for feeding, as well as gravel bars for spawning.

Fish caught in a poachers gillnet; (photo/Rich Carey)
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Andrew McLemore
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An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Cuenca, Ecuador, which he uses as a home base for adventures throughout the Americas. When he's not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he's hanging out with his dog Campana.