Eric Tran and Johnny Nguyen set out in the dark morning hours of March 30 and reeled in 66 striped bass in the waters off Atlantic City.
That night, the city’s homeless feasted on the fish with diced potatoes and mixed vegetables.
The meal got rave reviews, said the Atlantic City Rescue Mission’s Partnership Development Officer Bob Franklin.
“Our CEO who was there said the only thing left were the scales,” Franklin said. “They were extremely delicious and our clients enjoyed it a great deal.”
But charity was not what Tran and Nguyen had in mind when they left the dock that night.
State Division of Fish and Wildlife conservation officers intercepted their boat and confiscated the catch before dusk, officials said.
Tran, 31, and Nguyen, 38, both of Atlantic City, had pulled in undersized fish and went over the catch limit — by a lot.
At the time, the limit for that particular species, in place to reduce overfishing, was one fish between 28 and 43 inches and one over 43 inches.
On April 1, the bag limit switched to one fish between 28 and 38 inches.
Most fishermen take the conservation of striped bass very seriously, said Capt. Jason Snellbaker.
“It’s a prized fish. … They’re beautiful fish, just the way they look,” Snellbaker said. “They’re called striped bass because they have the stripes down the side. These fish get to be 40 and 50 inches.”
Results of a recent stock assessment determined overfishing was taking place, Snellbaker said.
New limits were put in place to curb overfishing and subsequent population decline.
Lt. Chris Petruccelli, Detective Ryan Harp and Officer Cody Meyer were on routine patrol March 30, when they noticed the anglers moving quickly between popular fishing areas in the fog without navigation lights. They met the vessel at a dock and seized their catch after an investigation, Snellbaker said.
The fish were then transported to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.
Donating fish is relatively common, Snellbaker said, if a load is large or if the fish are well taken care of before being confiscated.
One fish isn’t worth the trip, he said, and fish caught and left to sit out in the steaming heat of midsummer might not be fit for consumption.
“As somebody who’s been doing this for 20 years, … when a fish starts to go bad, it has a distinct smell,” Snellbaker said. “I would never give someone a fish that was not on ice or if it wasn’t at least a cool night.”
Though donations are not rare, this particular catch was dropped off at the Rescue Mission at an opportune time.
Cash donations have stayed stable, Franklin said, but need has increased dramatically. They have gone from feeding about 300 people a day to more than 500 a day since the pandemic began and casinos shut their doors.
The officers brought 62 of the confiscated fish to the shelter, Franklin said. Most were about 25 inches, which would make them roughly seven pounds.
Those fish fed more than 1,000 people, Franklin said.
“The type of donation that the conservation officers made was huge,” he said. “Anything that can help us offset costs at this time and help us to feed the folks and help us with the funds to keep the lights on (is) critically important.”
Tran and Nguyen were charged with having undersized fish and going over the limit for striped fish. Those charges carry a fine of $100 per fish.
They also were charged with unsafe operation of a vessel, operating a power vessel without valid registration and failing to have appropriate vessel safety gear. Their gear was seized as evidence and officers are seeking forfeiture.
They were also hit with charges related to the pandemic, including breaking the law during the governor’s stay-at-home order and failure to follow social distancing, Snellbaker said.
“Two guys in a boat … go and violate the law like this,” Snellbaker said, “and now my officers, in order to process them, have to risk exposure to these guys.”
There is a misconception among some fishermen that conservation officers aren’t on high alert during the pandemic, he said.
“I just want to … let people know that we’re still out there,” Snellbaker said.