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Wildlife Detectives

Poach Fish, Get Caught, Keep Your License

June 3, 2015

Get caught poaching fish one too many times in Northwest waters and you’re likely to lose your sport fishing license.

Do the same under a commercial license, on a much larger scale, and you’ll likely avoid the same fate.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has suspended thousands of recreational fishing licenses since 2003 because of rule violations, according to agency data. It has revoked zero licenses for commercial fishing violations since then. They’re almost as uncommon in Oregon.

After failing to follow through on a statutory mandate, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife now has no mechanism for suspending licenses after commercial fishing violations — one of its most powerful tools against repeat poachers depleting local fisheries. The state’s failure to establish the committee is an example of the enforcement gaps that often leave Northwest poachers uncaught or lightly punished, as EarthFix reported last month.

In 2003, the Washington Legislature decided existing laws did “not take into account the real-life circumstances faced by the state’s commercial fishing fleets,” and too many law-abiding fishermen faced the potential of losing their license for minor mistakes.

So it ordered the Department of Fish and Wildlife to establish a new committee, with representatives from the agency and the fishing industry, to review cases and determine whether violations warranted a loss of license.

The state never established that committee.

“We were just unable to figure out a feasible way to do it,” said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of enforcement and head of the marine division for the WDFW. “I’ve known a lot of commercial fishermen. The last thing they want to do is sit in judgment on their peers, especially during fishing season.”

Members were chosen at a work group shortly after the statute passed, but 12 years later it has never materialized nor acted on a license suspension. Honest commercial fishers who make minor mistakes now keep their license without the hassle of a review. So do known poachers.

“There’s definitely some habitual violators out there who shouldn’t be in the game,” Cenci said. His agency revoked two licenses the year before the statute changed. “I remember suspending or revoking licenses under the old model. I wouldn’t suspect the need for that would have changed.”

Since 2003, more than 200 people have been found guilty of criminal violations under Washington’s commercial fishing laws, according to an analysis of data from Washington’s Administrative Office of the Courts. That number is likely low, Cenci said, because commercial violators can also be charged with theft or other crimes.

Cenci said his agency does have other tools that can be effective in hindering poachers, including seizing a commercial boat for some or all of a fishing season. Because most commercial fishing violations are criminal in Washington, penalties can include jail time and restitution. Cenci said the agency plans to revisit the issue of license suspensions.

License suspensions are almost equally rare in Oregon. Fish and Wildlife officials there said they do not count commercial license suspensions separately from recreational ones, but that only a handful of commercial licenses have ever been suspended.

Prosecutors in Oregon’s coastal counties say license suspensions are unattainable even in egregious violations.

“My experience has been it is impossible,” Lincoln County District Attorney Michelle Branam said. In 2013, Oregon State Fish and Wildlife Police named Branam Wildlife Prosecutor of the Year. She said the amount of money violators can make from illegal fishing motivates her to pursue the biggest penalties she can. That hasn’t included license suspensions, despite her best efforts.

“I have not seen a commercial license suspension, even in the wake of criminal prosecution,” Branam said.

Revoking a commercial fishing license is a tricky political issue. Commercial boats in Oregon and Washington reeled in more than $550 million worth of fish in 2013. Many fishermen have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the industry — revoking a license could mean taking away someone’s livelihood.

Still, some within the industry lamented enforcement agencies’ inability to suspend licenses.

“It would be beneficial for them to have a little bigger hammer to swing,” Brian Allison, longtime fisher and president of the Puget Sound Crab Association, said. “You give a guy a break a couple times, but if it’s just inherent bad behavior, you might as well remove that from the mix.”

Doing so, Allison said, would allow enforcement officers to direct their attention elsewhere and keep honest fishers honest rather than continually policing the worst offenders.

Washington has 127 enforcement officers and 27 in its marine division. An independent staffing study said the agency’s workload requires double that amount.