Investigators at Ilwaco charter office

A Superior Court judge ruled a search at Pacific Salmon Charters in the Port of Ilwaco exceeded legal bounds and tossed out related convictions, but county prosecutors are appealing.

ILWACO — Pacific Salmon Charters got an unexpected publicity boost earlier this month, when the crew of the Pacific Dream rescued passengers from a sunken boat. Last week, the company received not-so-welcome attention from state and federal game wardens.

On Thursday, July 13, officers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife served a search warrant at the Pacific Salmon office at the Port of Ilwaco.

According to the warrant, Pacific Salmon crews are suspected of habitually “high-grading,” or catching more than the legal limit of fish, and keeping only the most desirable specimens. Investigators say they have evidence that Pacific Salmon Charters crews high-graded on at least two trips during the short spring halibut season.

Pacific Salmon Charters is owned by Milton Gudgell, of Ilwaco, a veteran fisherman who has often been active on fisheries management issues. The company offers guided trips for salmon, halibut, tuna, sturgeon and bottomfish, as well as burials at sea.

Investigators seized passenger manifests and other documents during the visit, WDFW Capt. Dan Chadwick said in a phone interview. Chadwick declined to name the suspects, saying the case is still under investigation, and no one has been arrested or charged yet.

A staff member hung up when a Chinook Observer reporter called the Pacific Salmon office.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission manages Pacific halibut stocks in the U.S. and Canada. The commissioners, who are appointed by the U.S. president and Canadian prime minister, gather once a year to review the health of fish populations, make catch recommendations and discuss regulatory proposals. State and provincial governments then use their recommendations to set local limits. In Washington, WDFW manages the recreational halibut fishery.

Halibut is a quota-based fishery, meaning that the season ends when the total catch reaches a predetermined limit. The quotas are based on fish population estimates and other data, and are intended to prevent overfishing. For 2017, the commission recommended setting the Washington sport-fishing limit for halibut at 237,762 pounds, according to the website. The regular recreational season opened in early May, and lasted for eight days this year. After assessing fish stocks, managers allowed one extra day of fishing on June 17.

Under Washington law, recreational fishermen are allowed to catch one halibut each.

“If you’re not happy with the size of the fish, you can release it right away and try for a bigger one,” Chadwick said. “But the minute you retain a fish, it’s yours.”

The quota system can only keep fish populations stable if fishermen are honest about what they catch, Chadwick said, so WDFW took note when a Pacific Salmon customer alleged in May that the crew on his fishing trip had blatantly violated the rules. According to a WDFW report filed with the warrant in South District Court, a group of four men from Idaho took a trip on the Westwind in mid-May. In a written statement, one of the men said he and his friends started to put away their gear after catching their fish, and were surprised when the captain and deckhand urged them to “keep fishing” and “get bigger fish.” Another man said crew members told him they would store all of the fish in a “live well” until the end, and then decide which ones to keep. At the end of the trip, he said, one of the crew lined the fish up on the deck and sorted them by size.

“None of them appeared to be alive,” he wrote. “Then I saw the crew start throwing some of the fish over the side, several of which had their throats cut.” A third man said the deckhand told him to remember his tag number, and urged him to “Keep fishing for a bigger one,” even though he already had a fish in the live well.

“I don’t recall anybody being told to stop fishing throughout the rest of the day, no matter how many they caught,” he wrote. He said he didn’t realize they were high-grading until he watched the crew transfer tags from small fish to large fish. He alleged that seven halibut “floated away, belly up,” after the crew tossed them over the side.

After the trip, the men discussed what they had seen, and decided to contact WDFW.

When fisheries managers decided to open the season for one more day on June 17, WDFW police saw an opportunity and took it. They booked a halibut fishing trip for a plainclothes officer on the Pacific Dream.

During a briefing at the start of the trip, the officer and other passengers listened as a skipper allegedly explained that if they caught “little chickens,” they would store them, rather than “gaffing,” or killing them, so that the customers could “size up” at the end of the day.

In all, they caught 18 fish that day — four more than the legal limit, according to the officer’s report. The officer said he watched as a crewmember held pairs of fish by the tails to compare their sizes, and then threw four small ones overboard. At least one was already dead, he said.

Two other WDFW officers met the boat in port. At first, crew members allegedly denied exceeding limits or throwing small fish back. The officers claimed they repeatedly gave the suspects opportunities to come clean, but no one did, until they revealed that an undercover officer had posed as an angler as part of an ongoing investigation. At that point, two employees allegedly acknowledged they had been high-grading, and one claimed he had been below-decks for most of the trip and hadn’t seen anything.

The investigating officer concluded that high-grading appeared to be “standard practice for Pacific Salmon Charters.”

During the July 13 search, officers seized customer manifests, receipts, fishing license books and other documents. Investigators are using that information to find and contact other customers, Chadwick said.

Pacific Salmon staff could potentially be charged with two misdemeanors, second-degree unlawful recreational fishing, and wasting food fish or shellfish. They could also be cited for violating state rules for fishing seasons and limits. In the report, the investigator said, if they are charged with lying to, or misleading officers, it might put their Coast Guard licenses at risk.

Chadwick said high-grading and other forms of poaching have harmful consequences for people, as well as fish. When a charter company uses illegal or unethical practices to help their customers catch more and bigger fish, it puts honest competitors at a disadvantage. Left unchecked, one company’s unethical practices can create an atmosphere where other companies also feel that they have to break the rules to stay in the game, Chadwick said.

“We’re furthering our investigation … to understand the extent of this practice over the last year,” Chadwick said. “Two boats from the same company doing the same thing — it’s an indication to us that we need to dig further.”

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