Scales of Justice

Striped Bass May Be New York’s Newest Contraband

As federal agents watched from surveillance posts earlier this year, the smugglers off-loaded the contraband from a rickety boat and onto a dingy pier in Edgewater, New Jersey. The stash was quickly packed into boxes, which were then hidden beneath a tarpaulin. It was still light out, so the containers—which had been mislabeled to conceal their content—would have to sit until darkness fell and it was time to transport the cargo into New York City.

In the evening, the haul, laced with a toxic compound, was placed into a 1968 Chevrolet pickup and trucked into Manhattan. Surreptitiously following the delivery vehicle were the same G-men who had earlier watched as the product was unloaded. The Chevy made its way into lower Manhattan, where, in the shadow of NYPD and FBI headquarters, a dealer took delivery of the packages. Into the wee hours, the wholesaler and his cohorts cut their stash into smaller pieces, which they peddled to their regular clientele.

At the end of this illicit food chain, as it were, the product eventually found its way to the street, where retail sales have always been brisk (especially in Manhattan, where price rarely matters when it comes to sating one's appetite).

But, as you may have guessed, those boxes smuggled in from the Jersey waterfront did not contain bales of marijuana, bricks of cocaine, or even some crystalline horse.

Actually, it was fish.

To be precise, striped bass illegally netted from the PCB-tainted waters of the Hudson River. While retail customers and restaurant patrons assume that the expensive fish comes from the clean waters of some coastal state, at least five tons of striped bass sold recently at the Fulton Fish Market actually were plucked illegally from the waters near the George Washington Bridge, according to documents obtained by the Voice.

An ongoing federal/state criminal investigation, which last month led to the indictment of one New Jersey fisherman, is probing the illegal harvesting and sale of the Hudson's striped bass, a fish favored by many leading New York chefs as well as countless gourmands. Because of this wide popularity with consumers, fishermen refer to the striped bass as their "money fish," since it sells to wholesalers for a pricey average of $2.50 a pound.

Investigators are now examining whether the lucrative nature of the striped bass market has led some local businessmen to break a variety of New York, New Jersey, and federal laws in pursuit of big paydays, and whether, in the process, the health of consumers has been jeopardized.

For more than 20 years, the commercial fishing of striped bass in the Hudson has been banned, according to Byron Young, a marine resources specialist with New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). This prohibition was triggered by the high level of PCBs found in the river's striped bass population, said Young. Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are an oily industrial insulator that was discharged into the Hudson by a number of factories, chief among them a General Electric plant north of Albany.

The presence of traces of this chemical contaminant in Hudson River fish has led New York and New Jersey to issue health advisories stating that pregnant women and nursing mothers should not eat striped bass. Both states also suggest that other persons strictly limit the amount of striped bass they eat monthly. While commercial fishing in the Hudson is illegal, these warnings remain necessary since some recreational fisher men continue to catch striped bass for their own personal consumption.

Signs posted along the Hudson waterfront warn anglers of the health risks associated with the fish and the DEC recently announced that it will use a $173,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to launch a bilingual public awareness campaign regarding these dangers.

The commercial striped bass ban, Young said, was enacted to protect the unsuspecting consumer who "goes into a fish market and has every reason to expect that the product should be clean and safe." These customers "don't have any way of knowing" where the striped bass was caught. New York State, added Young, does allow commercial fishing for striped bass in cleaner waters, like those found on Long Island's East End and South Shore.

According to an affidavit by federal agent Scott Doyle, the ongoing criminal probe began in late April, when a confidential informant told investigators that R. Ingold & Son, the Edgewater firm, was illegally harvesting striped bass from the Hudson, fish that "were then packaged and driven to New York City for commercial sale." Aided by New York and New Jersey environmental officials, agents with the U.S. National Marine and Fisheries Service quickly discovered, court records state, that the New Jersey company was casting its nets near the George Washington Bridge and hauling in tons of striped bass from those polluted waters.

These fish were then brought back to the firm's dock, packed in ice, and trucked at night to the Fulton Fish Market. At the market, the contraband was sold to one vendor, M.V. Perretti Corp. of 107 South Street. Contacted at the market early Monday morning, Michael Perretti, 35, declined to answer Voicequestions about either his alleged sale of the PCB-tainted fish or a mid-May government raid at his office. Perretti's lawyer, Harold Levy, says his client denies any wrongdoing and, when served with subpoenas, has provided prosecutors with every document they have requested.

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