MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – A store owner from Georgia made a half-dozen trips to Atmore in 2018 for clandestine meetings in a parking lot off of the interstate with a seller who turned out to be an undercover federal investigator.
Those purchases, along with surveillance video and recorded phone calls, resulted in trafficking charges – but not drug trafficking.
The charges filed by federal prosecutors, and admitted to Wednesday by defendant Cuong Duc Bui, are far less common but which authorities contend are no less serious – fish trafficking.
Bui, 37, pleaded guilty to fish trafficking and attempted fish trafficking.
The federal agents who investigated the case came not from the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration but from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Christopher Hale, a prosecutor with the Justice Department’s environmental crimes section, said during Wednesday’s hearing that the case is part of a larger operations targeting the “commercialization of recreationally caught fish.” That is a priority for the National Marine Fisheries Service in th3 Southeast, he said.
According to his written plea agreement, Bui ran a store in Columbus, Georgia, called S Mart which sold fish and other items. He admitted to buying from recreational and other unlicensed dealers.
That is a violation of the Lacey Act, passed in 1900 to protect wildlife.
Federal authorities explained the potential harm in the plea document: “This practice is damaging to the resources because it allows the commercialization of fish species that could be undersized, over-the-quota-limit, out-of-season, and/or from a protected area,”
In addition, the plea agreement states, Bui was able to “skirt health and safety inspections that ensure the sanitary quality of food fish.”
NOAA investigators, after getting wind of Bui’s practices, set up a sting. From February to through July 23 in 2018, an undercover agent posing as a fisherman based on Mobile sold hundreds of pounds of red snapper that the defendant believed to have been caught recreationally or without proper fishing permits.
Bui, according to the plea agreement, sought thousands of pounds of fish. There was no doubt he knew the fish were illegal, going so far as to joke about going to jail, according to the document. The plea agreement also states that Bui instructed the agent to tell the police he was bringing fish to a relative’s party if he were pulled over by authorities.
During those meetings in Atmore, Bui would load the fish in to his van and then drive back to his market in Columbus. The combined sales totaled 2,250 pounds of red snapper worth $14,000, along with 150 pounds of king mackerel.
Defense attorney Buzz Jordan says he is unsure how his client got swept up in the larger operation.
“I think they had heard things about other people down there, and people buying fish off the docks and stuff like that,” he said. “So, I think that’s how it all led to that.”
Jordan said his customer no longer owns the store. Instead, he said, the Vietnamese immigrant earns a living delivering and selling Vietnamese fruit to grocers in the Mobile area.
“I think in 2018, you know, you had this snapper (that) was a big issue,” he said. “So I think that was on the government’s radar. So I think that’s why they were kind of looking closely at the Gulf of Mexico and, you know, the short snapper season was probably a big thing.”
US District Judge Terry Moorer set sentencing for Sept. 22. Bui faces up to five years in prison, but prosecutors have agreed to recommend leniency, which Jordan said he hopes results in a sentence of probation.
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