ILWACO — Several local charter skippers and crewmen could soon be reeling in hefty fines and jail sentences.
Following a nine-month Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife investigation, the state in early April filed a total of 37 criminal charges against six men affiliated with Pacific Salmon Charters: David Gudgell, 57, of Seaview; Robert Gudgell, 56, of Longview; Thomas Merriman, 61, of Sammamish; Brian Cables, 59, of Ilwaco; Patrick Gore, 28, of Deer Island, Ore.; and Richard Mercado, 52, of Tacoma.
Investigators say the men systematically urged customers on recreational halibut-fishing trips to exceed limits and allegedly wasted large numbers of fish during the 2017 season.
A woman who answered the company’s phone hung up when asked for comment.
“This was unique. I haven’t in my 18 years here been a part of a case like this,” WDFW Sgt. Dan Chadwick said on April 17.
Fishing for the truth
Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers opened an investigation last June, after customers contacted WDFW about allegedly unethical activities they witnessed during their May 2017 halibut-fishing trip. The whistleblowers suspected the crew of “high-grading” — the illegal practice of intentionally catching too many fish, keeping the best ones, and discarding or releasing the rest.
In June, an undercover officer booked a fishing trip. After he claimed to have seen high-grading activity on board the Pacific Dream, investigators sought a warrant. In July, state and federal game wardens searched the company’s Port of Ilwaco office and took a variety of records.
Owner Milt Gudgell has operated Pacific Salmon Charters for about 20 years, according to state records. The company has a fleet of seven boats. Some are privately owned by people who book trips through Gudgell, but two boats, the West Wind and the Katie Marie, are operated by his sons, David and Robert Gudgell.
You get what you get
Every year, the members of the International Pacific Halibut Commission recommend quotas intended to prevent halibut from being overfished. When each region on the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada meets its quota, its season ends. For 2017, the commission recommended a Washington sport-fishing limit of 237,762 pounds. The season lasted just nine days.
Fishermen must also abide by a “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit,” policy. There is a one-fish-per-person-per-day limit. A person who is unhappy with the size of their fish can throw it back immediately and try again, but keeping more than one fish as “insurance” and picking the best one later is a definite no-no.
As a result, some fishermen inevitably end up with little to show for their time and money at the end of a day of fishing.
Strict for good reason
A single halibut can live upwards of 40 years and weigh as much as 500 pounds, although most weigh about 15 to 30 pounds. Because they provide lots of meat and keep well, they became a very popular target for the commercial fishermen of the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. By the 1910s, halibut stocks were suffering from overfishing. That led to the creation of the commission and management treaties between the U.S. and Canada.
On the East Coast, however, the similarly overfished Atlantic halibut were not managed as effectively. Even today, their numbers are so low that commercial fishing is banned.
Experts say quota-based systems only work when fishermen are honest about their catch. When people take more than the allowed number of fish, scientists can’t get a realistic sense of how the species is doing. That can result in overfishing.
Some people believe it is harmless to store fish in a “livewell” and then throw unwanted specimens back before heading in. That simply isn’t true where halibut are concerned. According to the probable cause report filed in South District Court, “Halibut are fished from extremely deep water, 600 to 700 feet, where the pressure and temperature are significantly different than the surface and highly stressful to the fish.” Fish that survive their time in a livewell are more likely to die after being returned to the ocean.
Dozens of witnesses
Using the seized records, investigators tracked down crew members and around 100 customers who went on halibut trips with Pacific Salmon last year. They spent months interviewing and seeking written statements from the former passengers.
Some refused to talk, said they couldn’t remember anything or denied seeing any illegal activity. One man who had been fishing with the company for 10 years told officers, “I think you’re going on a witch hunt.” Chadwick said the officer who did most of the interviewing quickly noticed that long-time customers seemed to have more memory problems than recent one-time customers.
At least 30 people did go on the record, saying, among other things, that staff told them to catch multiple halibut, stored the extra catch in a box with no circulating water, sorted catches by size, swapped identifying tags to more favorable fish, dumped smaller fish — many dead — overboard, and lied to regulators about their catches after returning to port. Other customers who were not named in the court documents reportedly corroborated their accounts.
Based on customer estimates, the company allegedly facilitated the illegal catch of 83 to 104 halibut over the course of nine days. Assuming an average weight range for the fish, Pacific Salmon was allegedly responsible for exceeding the Columbia River Area quota of 12,799 pounds by somewhere between 9 and 24 percent.
‘A meat-fishing trip’
David Gudgell was charged with 16 counts of second-degree unlawful recreational fishing, and one count of waste of fish and wildlife. In police reports and court documents, investigators alleged a pattern of blatant violations aboard the West Wind.
One man said he caught six fish on May 6, then helped other people. He described seeing the crew lining up all of the dead fish and “culling” the smallest ones.
“I did see one halibut’s white stomach rolling deeper and deeper into the sea,” another passenger from the same trip said. A passenger who fished the following day allegedly observed similar practices, saying, “I was confused as to why we kept fishing. I asked the captain and he said, ‘Keep fishing,’ but did not explain.”
On May 11, the crew allegedly repeatedly told passengers, “Catch bigger fish,” and “Catch faster.” Two men said they saw the deckhands pull ID tags off of as many as seven smaller dead fish and move them to bigger fish.
“It was a meat-fishing trip,” one woman said.
A May 18 customer recalled seeing a livewell that was “very bloody and overflowing with fish.” The next day, passengers were allegedly told to fish until “the box was so full and the lid would not close” and fish at the bottom “were compressed,” according to a passenger’s statement. He said the crew swapped tags and then dumped 12 dead fish overboard, along with two large sea rays, which they had cut in to chunks.
“It was very depressing to see the waste,” he said.
A May 25 passenger provided a detailed statement in which he said Gudgell told deckhands to replace small fish throughout the day. As bigger fish were caught, he said, Gudgell ordered them to “get rid of the potato chips.”
David Gudgell declined to speak with the investigators. He could not be reached for comment.
‘Most boats don’t do this’
Robert Gudgell was charged with 12 counts of second-degree unlawful fishing. One early-season customer said he personally caught four halibut, and did not learn that he had broken the law until after he went home. A repeat-customer said he’d seen high-grading on his 2017 trip and in previous years. According to his report, when the crew threw back six to eight fish at the end of the trip, Gudgell told him, “Most boats don’t do this.” A former deckhand who went on a recreational trip admitted he caught three or four halibut. At one point, he said, at least 23 fish were stored in an aluminum box that was filled with water from a deck hose. He estimated that the crew dumped 10 fish. They swam away, he said, but added, “Their chances of survival ain’t that great.”
Several other customers described over-fishing, and deckhands swapping tags and throwing back live and dead fish. One man told the investigators there were two tanks on the boat: one for live fish, which the crew referred to as the livewell, and one for dead fish, “which was called the ‘coffin.’”
Chadwick said people involved in the case have wondered why the alleged activity wasn’t reported sooner. But, he said, most people who don’t fish regularly don’t know the rules. They hire charters so they can benefit from the captain’s expertise.
“Through the interviews, we did find out that a lot of customers were thinking that something wasn’t right,” Chadwick said. “They paid to put their trust in the captain that they’re going to have a safe trip and catch their fish legally.”
High-grading is ‘a thing’
Richard Mercado, an occasional deckhand and captain of the Mar B III, was in charge of May trips where customers reported a few incidences of smaller-scale high-grading.
Mercado and three deckhands, Merriman, Gore and Cables, were each charged with two counts of second-degree unlawful fishing.
The deckhands were working on the Pacific Dream on June 17, when the undercover game warden witnessed high-grading. In an interview right after the trip, Merriman allegedly said he had been belowdecks and did not see anything. Investigators allege Gore and Cables initially lied about their activities, but came clean after being reminded that they could lose their Coast Guard licenses for lying. According to police reports, Cables told WDFW officers, “I didn’t know high-grading was a thing,” and repeatedly said he didn’t think he had done anything wrong.
Chadwick was skeptical.
“Anybody associated with a fishery that has any level of expertise knows that putting halibut in a box to high grade later — they know that’s not right.”
None of the men could be reached for comment on April 16.
Each of the unlawful fishing charges is a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine, 90 days in jail, or both. Wastage of fish and wildlife is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by a $5,000 fine, 364 days in jail, or both.
The charges could potentially have more serious consequences for David Gudgell, because a person who is convicted of wastage automatically loses any license used while committing the crime for a year.
All of the men are scheduled for arraignment in South District Court on April 18.