PEABODY — A Gloucester man admitted Monday that he dumped a decapitated bluefin tuna worth as much as $10,000 in a wooded area in Gloucester, after he’d caught it out of season in 2017.
Harold Wentworth, 41, of 24 Liberty St., will spend the next year on probation and must pay a $1,000 fine, Peabody District Court Judge James Barretto ordered during a hearing requested by Wentworth’s attorney on the day the case was set to go to trial there.
During the hearing, Wentworth’s attorney revealed that federal fisheries officials have also fined his client $15,000 for the illegal catch.
Wentworth pleaded guilty to charges of littering from a vehicle, improper disposal of waste and driving after license suspension.
Barretto had been considering a $2,000 fine, the amount proposed by prosecutor Heidi Sylvanowicz, reducing the amount only after confirming the federal fine.
“The commercial fishing industry is in turmoil for a variety of reasons I won’t go into,” Barretto said. “For hundreds of years, the people of Gloucester have earned a living by going to sea. The fleet has shrunken so dramatically it’s a national story. Taking tuna out of season makes that job much more difficult.”
The case of the decapitated fish drew international attention in 2017.
Sylvanowicz told the judge that rumors quickly began to spread about a large bluefin tuna being caught and landed at the Pigeon Cove Fishermen’s Co-Op in Rockport, on Nov. 20, 15 days after the season had ended.
Surveillance video confirmed it, showing the fish being taken off the fishing boat Went-Way.
It was found three days later in woods owned by the New England Forestry Foundation off Revere Street in Annisquam, where it was dragged from the roadway down a 15-foot embankment, Sylvanowicz told the judge.
A tow truck from Tally’s had to be called in to winch the carcass out of the woods.
Investigators found surveillance camera images showing a truck dragging the fish down the road.
Wentworth, who lost his license due to a drunken driving arrest in 2016, was at the wheel, said the prosecutor.
Investigators learned that there had originally been a plan to put the fish on ice until it could be sold on the black market, said the prosecutor.
As a longtime fisherman himself, Wentworth knew the rules, said the prosecutor.
“It was clear the individual knew it was out of season,” said Sylvanowicz.
She called the crime, which was investigated by the Massachusetts Environmental Police, “extremely offensive to the fishing community,” showing disrespect not only to the law but to his fellow fishermen.
The fish wound up being donated to a local farm for compost, said Sylvanowicz.
“It’s a huge waste,” said Sylvanowicz.
Wentworth’s lawyer, Ed O’Reilly, tried to convince Barretto to impose a continuation without a finding in the case, saying that his client had already paid a significant fine and that anything further would create a hardship on his family, which includes three children.
“That’s not to say it’s not important, but the federal authorities have taken action from what he’s told me,” said O’Reilly, acknowledging that it was a “blatant” violation of federal fishery restrictions.
He also said that despite not having a license at the time of the incident, Wentworth would have been eligible for a restricted license, but did not apply. He said the family relies on Wentworth to bring his children to and from school.
But Barretto questioned the request for a continuation without a finding for a man with a criminal record dating back to his teenage years, including convictions for serious charges. Often known in other states as deferred disposition or pre-trial probation, continuations without a finding are typically used to spare first-time or second-time offenders from having a criminal record.
Wentworth’s long record includes assaults and threats charges and convictions. In 2008 he was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after allegedly threatening to wrap a camera around a news photographer’s neck if he did not stop taking photos of a boat crash scene, the Gloucester Daily Times, a sister paper of The Salem News, reported.
Barretto, at the request of the prosecutor, also imposed conditions of probation that include staying away and having no contact with any of the witnesses in the case, who were present in court on Monday, prepared to testify.
Sylvanowicz told the judge those witnesses had expressed concerns about retaliation and retribution by Wentworth for the cooperation with law enforcement.
The case ended up in Peabody after Wentworth requested a trial by jury, something the small Gloucester courthouse could not accommodate.
Besides the witnesses, a pool of potential jurors waited all morning for Wentworth to decide whether to plead guilty or go to trial Monday.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.