Columbus Store Owner Sentenced For Selling Illegal Saltwater Fish

Conservation Law Enforcement Corner - November 2022

GON Staff | October 28, 2022

The Conservation LE Corner is designed to highlight the efforts of Georgia DNR Law Enforcement Division (LED) officers who, among their many duties, protect Georgia’s wildlife, sportsmen and natural resources from game-law violators. The following account is provided from DNR LED. 

A Columbus man who bought seafood from recreational anglers to sell at his Columbus grocery store pleaded guilty in late September and avoided jail time, but he was hit with a big fine and a lengthy probation period.

On Sept. 23, Cuong D. Bui, of Columbus, was sentenced to five years of probation, a $25,000 fine and 300 hours of community service for illegally buying and selling fish across state lines. 

U.S. District Court Judge Terry Moorer also imposed specific rules to Bui’s probation. One restriction is that Bui can’t possess 10 pounds or more of seafood.

Undercover agents and investigators uncovered 2,434 pounds of illegal fish purchased and transported across three different states, which is a violation of the Lacey Act. The federal law prevents anyone from transporting or selling any wildlife taken, transported or obtained illegally. Bui also violated an Alabama law requiring any vehicle involved in the purchase of seafood to have a seafood license from the state.

The illegal fish included 2,250 pounds of red snapper and 150 pounds of king mackerel.

The case was the result of a two-year joint investigation conducted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement, Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division, and Alabama’s Department of Natural Resources Marine Resources Division and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division.

In 2018, Bui, known as “Steve,” was the owner of S Mart grocery store on Manchester Expressway in Columbus where he sold various items, including seafood. Officials say Bui did not have a license to run the business and illegally bought large quantities of fish that were sold at the Columbus store. The store has since closed. 

During his probation, Bui is banned from the seafood industry, with limited exceptions. 

Through the undercover operation, officers discovered that Bui would travel from Georgia through Florida to Alabama to purchase fish illegally at parking lots. He also made illegal purchases at his business in Georgia. In total, Bui illegally purchased more than $14,000 worth of fish, while also failing to comply with state laws and health codes. 

Aware of his illegal activity, Bui regularly changed the meeting locations of his illegal fish purchases. He even concocted fake stories to deceive federal and state agents. Bui instructed the undercover agents to lie if they were stopped by enforcement on the way to sell their illegal catch. 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,” Bui reportedly told the undercover officers.

“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 Office of Law Enforcement, Southeast Division. “This case demonstrates the importance of our close collaboration with state partners, creative undercover operations and diligent investigative work.”

Bui pleaded guilty to illegally purchasing and selling caught snapper and king mackerel caught by recreational anglers. 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.

“When individuals illegally purchase and sell commercial quantities of fish, they harm the fishery,” the Georgia DNR Law Enforcement Division said in a press release. “They also disadvantage honest fishermen who invest significant time and money into following the rules. Strict possession limits, reporting requirements and other rules ensure that fish populations are healthy and accessible to all fishermen. Had it continued, Bui’s illegal operation would have posed significant risks to the successful management of the fishery and harmed the livelihoods of honest fishermen.”

To report possible illegal activity involving saltwater fish, contact NOAA’s enforcement hotline at 800.853.1964. To report game and fish violations in Georgia, call 800.241.4113.

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