WARRENTON - Commercial fisherman Dennis Sturgell of Warrenton is facing a $116,000 fine for allegedly making three illegal fishing trips in September 2007.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration alleges Sturgell, who operates under a federal fishing permit issued by NOAA, caught nearly $75,000 worth of groundfish in his fishing boat, Sea Sick II, without a functioning vessel monitoring system and without declaring what type of fishing gear he was using.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the federal law that governs federal fishing operations off the nation's coasts, requires fishermen to declare their fishing gear and track their vessel locations with a monitoring system.

Vessel monitoring systems use satellite global positioning system-tracking technology to monitor fishing vessel location, helping officials enforce offshore fishery restrictions.

Karl Hellberg, special agent for NOAA's fishery enforcement office in Astoria, said the monitoring system requirement has been in place for several years, and one of its primary purposes in the Pacific groundfish fishery is to make sure fishing boats stay out of the Rockfish Conservation Area, which was created to protect and revitalize overfished species.

"We've been enforcing these things for quite awhile," said Hellberg. "At first we were somewhat lenient. We gave out a lot of warnings to make sure everyone knew what was going on.

"The requirements are real clear. When they install and activate a unit, the regulations require the fishermen to notify (NOAA) 72 hours in advance of leaving port, so we can make sure we are receiving the signal."

Fishermen need to tell NOAA what gear they're using because some gear-types are allowed to fish in restricted areas such as the Rockfish Conservation Area while others are not, Hellberg said. The information goes into the monitoring system so enforcement officials can keep track of which boats are allowed to fish in different parts of the ocean.

The $116,000 fine might sound steep, said Hellberg, but it's not that pricey compared with the value of the fish allegedly caught illegally.

"You've got to put it in perspective," he said. "Look at the amount of fish that was taken on those trips. Then there's a penalty on top of that, so it isn't just the cost of doing business."

NOAA's Fisheries Service Office of Law Enforcement launched an investigation of the Sea Sick II after noticing the vessel was not operating its vessel monitoring unit during September 2007. The investigation determined that the vessel landed 35,000 pounds of groundfish worth nearly $75,000 in three trips that month.

Based on the investigation, NOAA issued a four-count Notice of Violation and Assessment with a proposed $116,000 fine for the alleged illegal fishing. Sturgell has 30 days to request a hearing before an administrative law judge in regard to these civil penalties.

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