Fishermen risk fines in competitive sockeye fishery

Alaska State Troopers issue 52 citations to over-eager anglers

Posted: Thursday, July 14, 2005

ANCHORAGE - July 20 is going to be a busy day in Naknek District Court.

That's when most of the fishermen nailed for fishing in closed waters over the first seven days of July in nearby Egegik will be arraigned.

In what has been an annual rite of summer, Alaska State Troopers issued 52 citations July 1-7 to fishermen whose boats crossed a line into illegal fishing grounds.

The fishermen's goal: getting to sockeye salmon first as they swim past Egegik.

"For some of them it's the cost of doing business," said Sgt. Justin Lindell on Monday after returning from an afternoon air patrol.

"Some of them feel they have to break the law to catch more fish," he said.

Egegik, with about 76 permanent residents, is 100 miles southwest of Dillingham, where the Egegik River dumps into Egegik Bay and eventually Bristol Bay.

It's part of the vast Bristol Bay sockeye fishery, the world's largest. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game this year forecast a Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run of 32.8 million fish, including 10.4 million heading to the Egegik River. The department projects a Bristol Bay commercial harvest of about 25.6 million fish, including 9.3 million at Egegik.

Drift gillnets - boats that drift and trail 900-foot nets that catch fish by the gills - are allowed to take 86 percent.

The Egegik in-river special harvest area starts a mile upriver of the community and extends five miles into the bay to an imaginary barrier called the "One-10 line" that fishing boats are not allowed to cross with their nets out.

At the height of fishing June 30, 538 boats, mostly 32-footers, competed for fish in the harvest area, Lindell said.

Department of Fish and Game biologists balance fishing with escapement periods and declare openings of four or eight hours. Those short windows of fishing opportunities lead to aggressive tactics on the water.

Fishermen maneuver in the bay, trying to put their nets as close to the One-10 line as possible in front of the other boats.

"They all try to set their nets on the boundary to get first crack at the fish," Lindell said.

Some cross the boundary into closed waters, despite knowing troopers are watching from air and sea.

"That's when they get cited, when they actually go out into closed waters to fish," Lindell said. "They're basically trying to get an advantage over other fishermen."

In some fisheries, troopers on shore with spotting scopes line up scofflaws in their sights. At Egegik, troopers in skiffs patrol the line as other troopers in helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft look for violators. Airborne troopers note Global Positioning System coordinates of offending boats and relay the information to officers in boats who board the fishing boats and issue citations.

Lindell patrols the line in a helicopter. "We have a Super Cub that flies it too," he said.

Fishing in closed waters is a Class A misdemeanor. Fines vary depending how far over the line a fisherman is and how many times he's been cited before.

Department of Law spokesman Mark Morones said if fishing in a closed area is prosecuted as a misdemeanor, the maximum fine is $15,000.

If it is prosecuted as a violation, the maximum fine is $3,000.

If fishermen have a prior fish ticket within 10 years, they can be fined $6,000. If they have two violations within 10 years, the fine could be $9,000.

Some fishermen were cited twice the first week of July.

The biggest deterrent, Lindell said, is a point system overseen by the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. Much like bad-driving motorists, if a fisherman accumulates too many points for violations, he can't fish anymore.

"It's not so much monetary, as the points, that affect a permit, and its status," Lindell said.

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