A Georgia seafood dealer was sentenced to five years of probation and a $25,000 fine after pleading guilty to illegally buying and selling fish across state lines – using illicit parking lot deals where he bought red snapper and king mackerel from recreational anglers.
Cuong D. Bui, also known as “Steve,” who formerly operated the S Mart grocery store in Columbus, Ga., pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a two-year undercover investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement, Alabama’s Department of Natural Resources Marine Resources Division and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, and Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources.
Bui must also put in 300 hours of community service as part of the sentence handed down Sept. 23 by U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer in Mobile, Ala. The case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Alabama and the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section, according to a statement from the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement.
“It is our job to protect honest fishermen and good actors and those who break the rules will be held accountable,” said Manny Antonaras, assistant director of NOAA’s OLE Southeast Division. “This case demonstrates the importance of our close collaboration with state partners, creative undercover operations, and diligent investigative work.”
The case came out of a two-year joint investigation conducted by federal, Alabama and Georgia authorities. Undercover agents and investigators documented 2,434 pounds of illegal fish purchased and transported across three different states in violation of the federal Lacey Act against trafficking of illegally taken wildlife, fish and plants.
Investigators learned Bui “would travel from Georgia through Florida to Alabama to purchase fish illegally at interstate parking lots. He also made illegal purchases at his business in Georgia,” according to NOAA. “In total, Mr. Bui illegally purchased more than $14,000 worth of fish, while also failing to comply with state laws and health codes.”
Bui knew he was operating outside of the law and “regularly changed the meeting locations of his illegal fish purchases. He even concocted fake stories to deceive federal and state agents,” according to NOAA.
Unknowingly employing undercover agents, Bui instructed them “to lie if they were stopped by enforcement on the way to sell their illegal catch,” according to the NOAA statement. “He told them to say that they were headed to a large birthday party for family and friends. ‘If you tell them that, they won’t say nothing … Good luck, try to catch a lot for me.’ “
Television station WTVM in Columbus reported that the court also restricted Bui’s future work in the fish business, limiting him to possessing no more than 10 pounds of seafood, and selling only live crawfish and crabs.