Halibut at charter office

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

LONG BEACH — After about three hours of deliberation, a six-person jury on Feb. 28 convicted charter boat operators Robert and David Gudgell of a total of 18 of 29 alleged fishing violations. The decision came after an eight-day trial in South District Court, in which more than 20 witnesses testified.

The brothers work for Pacific Salmon Charters, an Ilwaco charter company owned by their parents, Milt and Sarah Gudgell.

Pacific halibut

Bottom-dwelling Pacific halibut have become an increasingly popular game fish in Washington state in recent years.

“Natural resources like fisheries are the lifeblood of our community, and we could not allow the defendants to continue a practice that endangered them,” Prosecutor Mark McClain said in a prepared statement. McClain said the Gudgells turned down a plea offer that would have involved “a relatively brief jail sentence, prohibition from fishing halibut and significant financial responsibility,” choosing to take their chances on a trial instead.

High-grading allegations

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 state Department of Fish and Wildlife opened an investigation in spring 2017, after customers on a halibut fishing trip claimed they saw the boat crew catch more than the limit, store extra fish in a “livewell,” then cherry-pick the largest fish at the end of the day. They also alleged the crew dumped the unwanted fish, some of which were dead, overboard.

A fishing party can catch one halibut for each licensed person on the boat. If a passenger doesn’t like the first fish they catch, they can immediately release it and try for a bigger fish. However, catching more than the legal limit is strictly forbidden, and so is holding fish as “insurance” and releasing them if better fish are caught.

27 charges

WDFW Officer Todd Dielman interviewed and sought written statements from dozens of people who took fishing trips aboard Robert Gudgell’s boat, the Katie Marie, and David Gudgell’s boat, the West Wind, in 2017. The charges were based on those statements and on documents gathered during a search of the Pacific Salmon Charters office.

For each of the trips on which passengers reported violations, the brothers were cited for possessing more than the daily limit and for not immediately releasing fish that were over the possession limit. David Gudgell was convicted of waste of fish because he reportedly killed fish no one intended to take home and stored live fish in substandard conditions before putting them back in the water. Biologists say halibut that are caught and held may have higher mortality rates when they are released.

‘I’m a conservationist’

The Gudgells took the stand in the second week of the trial. Their testimony often highlighted the challenges of running a fishing business and their complicated relationships with the animals that provide their living.

When Robert Gudgell was called, defense attorney Nathan Needham produced a large matted illustration of a halibut, asking, “What’s that fish mean to you?”

“My future in halibut fishing. It’s an income source for me. It’s getting to be less and less,” Gudgell said. “You have to be able to fish for all the fisheries, all the time.”

Gudgell said he came up with the novel idea of putting the livewell — a gel-coated fiberglass holding tank — on his boat because there were times when deckhands couldn’t immediately deal with fish that came on board, for example, in very rough waters or when more than one customer brought in a fish at the same time. He said he believed it kept the animals healthier and happier, and was safer for passengers than leaving fish lying on the deck. Gudgell strongly denied throwing dead fish overboard.

“I’m a conservationist,” Gudgell said. “I don’t kill stuff just to kill. I don’t do it.”

Better digs for bait

“If I catch another one, and it’s bigger, what can I do?” Deputy Prosecutor Ben Haslam asked Gudgell on cross-examination.

“We’ll high-grade them up to a bigger fish,” Gudgell replied. He said his personal definition of ‘high-grading’ merely meant making sure customers get the largest fish, and crewmembers take home the smaller fish. He said it was common practice on charter boats.

Haslam homed in on the pitfalls of using a livewell, saying it had different pressure and temperature levels than typical halibut habitat and no oxygenation. Haslam noted that Gudgell kept his bait — mostly four to six-inch-long anchovies — in a bait box that was bigger than the livewell.

“Do they stay alive?” Haslam asked.

“Yes,” Gudgell responded. “Most of the time.”

‘Other boats don’t do this’

David Gudgell talked about his advocacy for the halibut fishery. He described his frustrations with the state’s management of the halibut fishery, saying the rules for commercial fishing of halibut are so rigid that they sometimes cause fish to die unnecessarily.

“It’s one [fishery] that I don’t think the state of Washington necessarily cares much about,” Gudgell said. He also talked about the pressure to please his customers, who paid around $215 per person for the privilege of catching one halibut.

“Customers need to go home with the biggest fish,” Gudgell said. He said he couldn’t see what his deckhands were doing while he was at the wheel, but he denied doing anything illegal — or telling his deckhands to do anything illegal — to keep his customers happy.

“The buck stops here,” Gudgell said.

Chief Deputy Prosecutor Joe Faurholt noted that, despite the brothers’ claims that the livewells improved fish health and passenger safety, they never told WDFW or other charter boat operators about their innovation. In fact, he added, one witness said he was told, “Other boats don’t do this.”

The buck stops here

In his closing argument, Faurholt went through a detailed, chronological summary of the evidence and testimony. As he spoke, he tossed a piece of yellow legal paper into the air to show how, as one witness put it, the dead fish rolled away “like a leaf.”

“How many people have to come into this courtroom and testify as to the events they witnessed?” Faurholt asked the jury. “What is reasonable doubt? If one…? If two?

“Five? 10? 15? 20?” He drew attention to an an-end-of-the-trip photo that showed about a dozen large halibut hanging on a rack.

“There’s a certain uniformity to the size of these fish,” Faurholt said.

Needham said the evidence was circumstantial, and the witnesses were inexpert.

“What did we hear for the past week? ‘We caught halibut, we put halibut back,’” Needham said. “Every time the boats came in, they had their limit.” He said just one witness specifically said the boat reached its limit before they stopped fishing.

“These are two men’s lives we hold in our hands today. Their futures, their professions,” Needham said.

Faurholt got the final word.

“There is a reason these men are being held accountable, not their customers,” Faurholt said.

“The buck stops with them.”

Potential penalties

The Gudgells showed little emotion as a court clerk read the verdicts. Via email, McClain, the prosecutor, praised his deputies’ “herculean” efforts.

“It was clear from the outpouring of community concern we received as this case developed that we needed to ensure a message was sent, not only to these two defendants, but to anyone in a position of responsibility who would risk the community for their own personal gain,” McClain said.

At the sentencing hearing on March 13, Judge Nancy McAllister could theoretically sentence the brothers to as much as 90 days in jail and $1,000 in fines for each count. David Gudgell’s gross misdemeanor conviction is punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. However, judges typically don’t hand down the maximum penalties unless a crime is particularly egregious or the defendant has significant criminal history.

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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