Professional Fisherman Sentenced After Investigation Into Mississippi Paddlefish Poaching Scheme

by Craig Garrett

After crossing state lines to poach paddlefish, two Kentuckians are facing felony charges, including prison time and thousands in fines. According to a news release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Mississippi on Monday, James Lawrence “Lance” Freeman, 27, of Eddyville, and Marcus Harrell, 34, of Murray went to Mississippi numerous times in the fall of 2018 and winter of 2019. This was to capture paddlefish from Moon Lake in Coahoma County. This is a lake that is off-limits to all paddlefish fishing.

After poaching paddlefish, Freeman and Harrell allegedly traveled to Kentucky, according to an article in Field & Stream. This was to sell and market the treasured paddlefish roe as caviar. This is in place of sturgeon eggs. They also misled buyers. They claimed the fish had been caught in places where paddlefish are caught lawfully. This was according to a press release.

After a long joint investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), the sentencing has been handed down. “I am extremely proud of these Officers for their hard work and dedication they put forth in bringing these violators to justice,” Col. Jerry Carter of MDWFP said.

Behind the sentencing for the paddlefish poachers

The Lacey Act forbids the shipment of the illegally taken game between states. Of course, this is why both Harrell and Freeman were charged with a violation. It is one of the oldest wildlife protection laws in the United States. It doesn’t allow the transportation of illicitly harvested game across state lines, making it a federal misdemeanor. “The Office of Law Enforcement takes violations of the Lacey Act seriously,” USFWS Office of Law Enforcement Assistant Director Edward Grace said. “The investigation [of] 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.” 

Part of Freeman’s sentence includes six months in prison. It also entails three years of supervised release and a $20,000 fine. Harnell’s sentence includes five years of probation and a fined of $7,500. Both men are not allowed to fish for the next five years. This will be a blow to their livelihood, as they’re both professional fishermen.

Sadly, the last surviving paddlefish is the American paddlefish or spoonbill. Paddlefish can reach lengths of 7 feet and weights of 160 pounds or more. This is according to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). Paddlefish numbers have been declining due to stream channelization, levee construction, and drainage of bottomlands, according to the MDC. This is because they feed on free-flowing rivers with oxbows and backwaters. They also use gravel bars for mating.