Halibut at charter office

Halibut catch at Port of Ilwaco, per WDFW case investigation.

LONG BEACH — Robert and David Gudgell, former fishing boat operators for Pacific Salmon Charters, will need to update their resumes.

At a March 13 sentencing hearing South District Court, Judge Nancy McAllister delivered a stinging rebuke to the brothers, who were recently convicted of numerous halibut-poaching charges.

“I really hope your selfish actions do not taint the reputation of the other fishermen in this area,” McAllister said before sentencing the Gudgells to jail time, hefty fees, probation and a one-year ban on being on boats.

‘Too many moving parts’

At the conclusion of a two-week trial in late February, Robert Gudgell, 57, was found guilty of eight counts of second-degree unlawful recreational fishing, a misdemeanor, and not guilty of four counts. David Gudgell, 58, was found guilty of nine counts of second-degree unlawful recreational fishing and not guilty of six counts. He was also found guilty of one count of waste of fish and wildlife, a gross misdemeanor.

The charges stem from a Department of Fish and Wildlife investigation opened in spring 2017 after customers on a halibut fishing trip said the crew caught more than the limit, stored extra fish in a “livewell,” then cherry-picked the largest fish at the end of the day. They also alleged the crew dumped the unwanted fish, some of which were dead, overboard. An undercover officer allegedly observed similar behavior on a June 2017 trip.

WDFW Officer Todd Dielman ran the investigation, interviewing more than 100 witnesses. After the defendants turned down a plea offer, Prosecutor Mark McClain assigned two deputy prosecutors to handle the trial.

“The prosecutor’s office went above and beyond to ensure this case had a successful outcome.

This case required two prosecutors. There were too many moving parts,” WDFW Capt. Dan Chadwick said.

‘They’re gonna have to find something else’

Deputy Prosecutor Ben Haslam estimated bringing 28 witnesses to court cost taxpayers about $10,000. Haslam said the case warranted an unusual amount of time and expense because the Gudgells’ crimes hurt the environment and an industry that is critical to the local economy.

“We would like the court to consider that these are crimes committed against the community,” Haslam said. “This is a community resource, this fishery. What we have is natural resources.”

Each unlawful fishing charge is punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Waste of fish and wildlife is punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. Haslam asked the court to impose the maximum fines, as well as 30-day sentences, with the remaining jail time suspended. He said he asked for stiff penalties in part because he did not believe the defendants had shown any contrition or taken responsibility for their actions. Haslam said banning the Gudgells from commercial fishing wouldn’t be enough to ensure they stayed away from the charter business.

“We understand this is their livelihood,” Haslam said. “They’re gonna have to find something else to do.”

‘It’s not the way they want to be remembered’

Defense attorney Nate Needham called it “a case about catching fish and releasing fish.” He said his clients were actually conscientious stewards of their industry and the environment who were tripped up by “gray areas” in the law.

“No one wants to see dead fish released,” Needham said. “It’s not the way they were raised, it’s not the way they were brought up and it’s not the way they want to be remembered.” He argued that the laws did not provide clear enough rules for situations where multiple passengers are pulling in fish at the same time, and did not specifically mention livewells. Needham said the Gudgells had no previous violations, and were never over limit when they returned to port.

“Everyone who went fishing was licensed,” Needham said. “They fished with the right gear, they fished in the proper place, during the proper time.”

Needham asked Judge McAllister not to impose the boat-ban, saying that after more than 20 years each in the industry, they had few other job prospects. He said the Gugells would likely have no way to pay their fines and might end up serving additional jail time as a result.

“If the court hands down a sentence that takes away their ability to earn a livelihood, it will be an irreparable, almost unrecoverable circumstance,” Needham said. “For these two gentlemen that’s a huge, huge consequence.” He asked McAllister to give them community service instead of jail time and fine them at a third of the rate suggested by the state.

Needham has not responded to a request for comment.

‘You knew your tactics were questionable’

When it was time to deliver her sentence, McAllister did not mince words.

“You testified that you were concerned about the resources, and I simply do not believe that is true,” she said.

During the trial, both brothers said they came up with the idea of installing livewells to hold fish because they thought it was better for the fish. McAllister said she didn’t think the law had any “gray areas” where livewells were concerned, and didn’t think they would have kept the livewell idea to themselves if it had actually been good for the fishery.

“You knew your tactics were questionable, and you knew those tactics would affect the fisheries that you were fishing in,” McAllister said. “I’m troubled by the 20 years of experience that you have in the industry, and that this is your life, and yet you would do this to your own industry.”

McAllister sentenced David Gudgell to 55 days in jail with 1,209 days suspended, a $15,000 fine, 24 months of probation and a one-year ban on being on any boat but a ferry for a year. She sentenced Robert Gudgell to 40 days in jail with 680 days suspended, an $8,000.00 fine, 24 months probation and a boat-ban.

The judge agreed to let the brothers serve up to half of their time as community service, at a rate of eight hours of service for each day of jail. However, she said the service would have to involve preservation of natural resources, and would have to be approved by the prosecutor’s office. She also specified that the jail time was not to be served on weekends.

“Jail time is to start May first,” McAllister said. “To coincide with the halibut season.”

The defendants have 30 days to appeal their sentences.

Natalie St. John is a staff writer for the Chinook Observer. Contact her at 360-642-8181 or nstjohn@chinookobserver.com.

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