GRAYS HARBOR - For the second time in 10 days, alleged illegal activity was uncovered in the Pacific whiting fishery by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers. As a direct result, the multi-million-dollar fishery has been shut down for the season. This equals about 240 million pounds of whiting that will not be harvested this year.
A check of a northern coastal cannery in Grays Harbor County at 3 a.m. Thursday by WDFW enforcement officer Matt Jewett revealed an apparent cover-up to dispose of yellow tail and widow rockfish, according to WDFW Capt. Mike Cenci.
Cenci said an employee of the cannery admitted putting 1,000 pounds of by-catch on a hydraulic lift in preparation to move the rockfish onto a conveyor leading to a grinder. The employee allegedly admitted the grinding process was to avoid adding the rockfish to the by-catch cap established by the federal government to protect over-harvested rockfish species.
There is a 220-metric ton cap on widow rockfish as by-catch in the Pacific whiting, or hake trawl fishery. According to Cenci, the boat that had brought the fish in was told by a cannery worker to leave the area, but it later returned. The vessel allegedly had already off-loaded 5,700 pounds of rockfish and there was an additional 4,300 pounds still on board.
WDFW Officers Dan Chadwick and Bret Hopkins also assisted in the investigation.
Cenci said, "The by-catch would have been destroyed if Officer Jewett hadn't showed up when he did. In my opinion this was a blatant effort to avoid the by-catch cap." He explained that at this time a charging decision is in the process of being made of the alleged violation as a federal and state crime.
The 10,000 pounds of by-catch directly led to the shutdown Thursday at 6 p.m. of the lucrative Pacific whiting fishery for the year. Only about 55 percent of the allotted catch of 242,591 metric tons of whiting for 2007 was harvested before the fishery was brought to a halt because of surpassing the by-catch cap for widow rockfish.
A previous violation of dumping 16,000 pounds of widow rockfish overboard while at sea by a boat skipper out of Oregon July 17 could lead to fines of up to $130,000 in that case. According to Cenci, the 16 trawlers that fish for Pacific whiting can bring in as much as $40,000 per day for their catch.
Pierre Marchand of Jessie's Ilwaco Fish Co. said, "We have about 250 permanent workers that were employed in processing Pacific whiting."
The Pacific whiting fishery has been regulated federally since 1997. It is crucial that regulators can rely upon accurate cannery counts of all species. Fishermen must have operable net and deck cameras on board to insure that honest whiting and by-catch numbers are obtained to make sure fish stocks on the West Coast are conserved.
Ironically, the feds were considering possibly lessening the stringent enforcement procedures on the whiting fishery, according to Brian Culver, Marine Fish Policy lead in Olympia. The two busts in 10 days by WDFW officers netted another 26,000 pounds (nearly six percent of the cap) of widow rockfish that likely would not have been counted otherwise.