Game officers chip in to keep July 4 safe, legal

<I>ELIZABETH LONG photo</I><BR>Capt. Censi and Officer Hopkins write out tickets to two fisherman for a host of violations, including mutilation of the wild salmon, shown at their feet, and for a catch over the legal limit. Officer Dan Chadwick watches on from the wheel of the boat.

PACIFIC COUNTY - They endure cheers and jeers in their daily line of work, cover a lot of ground - and a lot of ocean. Capt. Mike Censi, and Officers Dan Chadwick and Bret Hopkins are part of the marine enforcement division of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As law enforcement officers, they respond to a range of calls and complaints. They are teamed up with other law enforcement departments as part of the drug enforcement taskforce PACNET, or they might be called to assist with DUIs, assaults or any other number of crimes.

But their main focus is ensuring the natural resources of the state - salmon, elk, crab, razor clams - are not exploited by scofflaws who feel entitled to basically steal from other citizens. And they must routinely confront people who by nature of the activity, hunting and fishing, are armed with either guns or knives.

The Fourth of July, and the days leading up to it, were particularly busy for them as people flocked to the opening day of the ocean salmon season and to the beaches for fireworks.

The afternoon of the Fourth they could be found out on the ocean, checking fishing licenses, boat registrations and fish limits. The day was beautiful, with a light breeze and calm water. Most people were friendly, willingly showing their catches and their hooks - barbed hooks are not allowed to reduce the damage to any wild fish caught, which must be released.

"Come on board," said one fisherman cheerfully while proudly showing off his catch limit. Many boaters even thanked them as they pulled away.

The officers also took some time to chat with and educate people. When they approached one boat they noticed it didn't have a current registration. The officers didn't issue a ticket, but when the boater was told of the cost of the fine for the violation, he quickly responded with "I'll get it done tomorrow."

There was one type of "ticket" the officers were more than happy to hand out, coupons for ice cream to children wearing lifejackets. "He's going to want to go back in right now for the ice cream," joked one father as his son jumped up and down in delight at the unexpected reward.

Then the officers ran across a big "catch." As they approached a boat they noticed three poles in the water, but only two fishermen onboard, strike one. Boats are only allowed to have as many poles in the water as there are licensed fishermen in the boat.

The fishermen also seemed to be moving rather furtively about the boat, raising the officers' suspicions further. They boarded to check the catches, discovering a bag of salmon that had already been cut up, another bad sign and also illegal, falling under the heading of fish mutilation. When they examined the salmon it was clear they were wild, the back fin recently cut off and the fish butchered in an attempt to hide the fact. Those wild fish meant two less salmon to help restore the threatened wild population, basically cheating everyone.

They discovered four more fish in a cooler. And as it turns out, one of the fishermen didn't even have a license to fish.

"They're just plain out poaching," said Officer Chadwick of the men's overlimit haul.

The fisherman claimed he had tried to buy a license, but the system was having problems and he didn't want to buy a single-day license. In frustration, he claimed, he was disregarding other laws, including using barbed hooks.

"That's like the ATM not working and going and knocking over the whole bank," Capt. Censi told him.

Both men received three tickets each for a potential fine total ranging in the $800 range.

The officers' day wasn't finished, not even close. Next it was on to the beach for the Fourth of July celebrations.

Fireworks were well underway by the time they drove up. Some people made rude comments, but the majority seemed pleased to see law officers out in force, although spread thin.

At one point Capt. Censi pulled up to where Long Beach Police Chief Flint Wright was interviewing a suspected drunk driver. Large-gauge "doughnuts" marked the sand close to where children where playing.

"People clapped when I pulled up," Chief Wright told Capt. Censi.

The Fish and Wildlife officers concentrated their attention on stopping underage drinking. Censi explained that age group tends to be more likely to become rowdy and cause problems in the crowd.

With fireworks continually exploding, scenting the air with gunpowder, the officers strolled along the beach, answering questions and keeping an eye out for underage partyers. It didn't take them long to find a group.

The bonfire pit was ringed with empty beer cans. One young man beat a bongo drum as he lounged in the sand. Every person there, about 10 in all, were under age and the officers spent some time writing out MIP tickets. Then they poured out all the alcohol there. One young man looked as if he would cry as Cenci poured a nearly full bottle of Jim Beam into the sand.

"I felt like crying too," joked Censi.

"Better a mistake like this than a bigger mistake later," they warned the kids.

Walking away, the officers commented on how polite and well mannered the group was. "We should look for more bongo drums," they joked.

The next bunch was not so nice. They argued with the officers, calling them various nasty names, and accused them of infringing on their freedoms. Despite the hostility, the officers maintained their cool, trying to defuse the situation.

What the kids were apparently too young to realize was the officers were simply enforcing the laws of the land agreed on in a democratic manner. With freedom comes responsibility, a message often overlooked in the frenzied "war zone" of the Fourth of July celebrations, but clearly not overlooked by those willing to daily work to see those rights are protected, even when surrounded by chaos. Really just another day on the job for the officers.

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