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In Togiak, illegal fishing prompts concerns about escapement

Dave BendingerBristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman

In July, Alaska State Wildlife Troopers served warrants on the permit holders and operators of six vessels caught fishing outside of the Kulukak Bay section line in the Togiak district during Bristol Bay’s sockeye fishery. The vessels were seized and the fishermen charged with misdemeanor offenses. 

Most have pleaded guilty and paid up to $15,000 in fines to get their vessels back and resume the season. Though most of the cases are now closed, serious questions remain about what impact the illegally caught fish may have had on the struggle to make the escapement goal in the Togiak River. The low escapement has resulted in closures to the district fishery. 

For enforcement, the case was a major and hopefully very visible success in what officers suspect has been a long tradition of illegal fishing in Togiak waters. Troopers were not tipped off to the boats outside the Kulukak line by citizens or other fishermen; in fact, it was Fish and Game managers who first notified enforcement that catches in the Kulukak section were abnormally high and were noticeably higher than the Togiak River section, which was also unusual.

The weather was poor on the evening of July 8, which for veteran wildlife trooper Brett Gibbens meant it was probably a good night for a patrol flight. Why? Because fishermen rightly or wrongly assume that fishing outside of the line is best gotten away with when enforcement efforts may be hampered by weather. 

Gibbens piloted a Piper PA-18 Super Cub out of Dillingham on a more or less routine patrol flight at about 10 p.m. “The weather was pretty low,” he said. “I had to slip through a little pass between Dillingham and Kulukak because the hills were all fogged out. The weather was OK over where the fishing was happening, but then coming home I had to follow the coastline the whole way due to the fog. It was far from a pristine night.”

But the weather around Kulukak Bay was suitable enough for Gibbens to take aerial photos of the six vessels fishing 1 to 2 nautical miles east of the easily identifiable Kulukak section demarcations. He was even able to land on the water to interview those aboard one of the boats in question. 

Gibbens saw several other boats that night in the same area, though their nets were not deployed. Based on his previous summers enforcing the fishery and conversations with fishermen in the district, he suspects those he caught probably represent just the tip of the iceberg. 

“A person I was speaking with in Togiak not long after that night said something to the effect of, ‘Gee whiz, my cousins are dumb. They ought to know better than to go out there when a plane can fly.’ Not dumb for breaking the law or hurting the other legal fishermen, just dumb for risking getting caught, I guess.” 

How many other boats have fished outside of the line this year, and how many thousands of pounds of fish from illegal harvest were delivered before the July 8 bust, will likely remain unanswered. 

A week after his patrol flight, troopers mounted a robust response, ordering the 156-foot patrol vessel Stimson, the department’s somewhat undercover 32-foot vessel Kvichak, and several aircraft to the Togiak Bay to serve search warrants and eventually seize six fishing vessels troopers alleged were engaged in the illegal fishing. The boats were then tied up and guarded in plain sight. The proceeds from the sale of more than 20,000 pounds of sockeye that had been delivered after the July 8 illegal fishing will be forfeited to the state of Alaska. 

All but two of the nine boat operators or permit holders pleaded guilty to charges of commercial fishing in closed waters, a misdemeanor offense. By doing so, and agreeing to the sentencing terms, fishing vessels could be reclaimed and their commercial fishing effort could resume. Five of the seven who pleaded out were fined $15,000, with the two others ordered to pay slightly less. Two of the offenders will spend five days in jail, and most of the others have suspended jail sentences adhered to lengthy probation periods.

The differences in sentences were based on the individual’s role in the fishing effort, each person’s criminal history or lack thereof, previous fish and wildlife violations, and the extent to which the vessel was beyond the line or the size of the illegal harvest. 

Effect on escapement

There is little doubt that the illegal fishing was a factor in the low escapement numbers counted by Fish and Game at the towers on the Togiak River. The Togiak River escapement came in inexplicably low and late, and area management biologists began to suspect part of the reason was due to unlawful harvest. 

“Based on my conversations with troopers, and looking at the numbers, I would put a very conservative estimate that at least 20,000 sockeye were illegally intercepted,” said Matt Jones, who oversees the Togiak District out of the Dillingham Fish and Game office. “Those are fish that would have in all likelihood swam up the Togiak River, where those numbers were badly needed.”

The escapement goal for the Togiak River is between 120,000 to 270,000 sockeye, and as of this week the river has finally met the very low end of that goal. But earlier this season, the low and late sockeye run was a source of anxiety for fishermen and managers both. Eventually, Fish and Game ordered the fishery shut down to allow for the escapement to build.

“The river was just way behind the escapement curve,” said Jones, almost apologetically. “We have this tunnel vision for escapement on that river, and we have to get to that goal. But we also knew that we were taking away fishing time during the traditional peak weeks for Togiak fishermen, during those second and third weeks in July. That’s something we almost never have to do.”

Jones flew over the river every week, hoping to spot fish en route to the counting towers near Togiak Lake. The travel time between the district and the towers is typically seven to 10 days. The fish were not at the towers. They were not in the river. And they were not being caught in large numbers by district fishermen, at least legally. Fish and Game was taking note of the unusually high harvests coming from fishermen at the easternmost Kulukak Bay section, and the department said as much over local radio and VHF when the fishery closures were announced. 

“The department became aware of suspected illegal fishing activity in closed waters near Togiak District. This activity is believed to have directly impacted escapement, causing the Togiak River counting tower project to fall far behind expectations,” said the July 13 announcement. That was two days before troopers began seizing the suspected vessels.

It will also likely remain unanswered exactly how many sockeye were illegally caught, and exactly where those fish were heading to spawn. The vessels were east of Kulukak Bay and were catching fish traveling westbound along the rocky shore heading into the bay. But most if not nearly all Kulukak fish eventually continue west, many bound for the Togiak River. Others may continue west towards other river drainages, including the Goodnews, Kanektok, and even the Kuskokwim. 

Jones says the genetics of Bristol Bay’s westernmost sockeye are not as well understood as the other major rivers, but still, he is quite certain those illegal catches directly impacted the low escapement in the Togiak River. How much harm that caused other fishermen may never be known. 

Going forward

Over the past week, the run has rebounded, escapement has been met and continues to build, and higher catches are being reported. Jones, presumably along with the fleet still scratching away, is hoping for a long tail end to the Togiak sockeye season.

After the seizure of the vessels on July 15, Trooper Gibbens said the feedback he received in Togiak was almost overwhelming. “Many, many fishermen, especially from the Kulukak section and specifically the setnetters, contacted us. One after another, they just wanted to say ‘thank you so much, our fishing picked up immediately the day after the bust, those guys have been doing that for who knows how long’ and so on.”

Still, the attitudes understandably soured when Fish and Game was forced to close the fishery during what may have been the peak of the run. Gibbens said he heard from plenty of folks about that, too, but that most added a caveat that what was happening up to 2 miles outside the district wasn’t fair and seemed to have harmed the rest of the fleet. 

“Some fishermen were talking about what could happen to escapement in the future, but the more immediate concern was fairness, that it just wasn’t equitable this year. These fishermen were 1 to 2 miles outside of the line, corking off tens of thousands of pounds of fish before they ever had a chance to come into Kulukak Bay where the legal drifters and setnetters were.”

The seizure of the vessels was done in broad daylight, and the vessels were kept guarded where much of the Togiak fleet and residents of the village could take notice. Wildlife enforcement hopes a clear message was sent. 

“I guess the hope is that the legal fishermen staying inside the lines can see that and feel that somebody is watching and trying to keep things fair,” said Gibbens. “And for the people who are tempted to do the illegal thing, you know, I hope it’s clear that if they do it’s going to be at a great cost, potentially.”

Operators and permit holders charged with commercial fishing in closed waters from the July 8 flight: 

Rodney Gosuk, 39, of Togiak, owner and permit holder aboard the F/V 5 G’s
Anthony Poulsen, 46, of Togiak, owner and operator of the F/V Skammin
Norma Ayojiak, 44, of Togiak, permit holder aboard the F/V Skammin
Michael Poulsen, 21, of Togiak, crewmember aboard the F/V Skammin
Alvaro Sutton, 35, of Togiak, owner and permit holder aboard the F/V Kalena Annielyse
Kevin Harless, 52, of Togiak, owner and permit holder aboard the F/V Good Deal
William Byayuk, 22, of Togiak, owner and permit holder aboard the F/V Inuli
Leroy Fox, 54, of Togiak, owner and operator of the F/V Hammer Time
Will Fox, 18, of Togiak, permit holder aboard the F/V Hammer Time

This story originally appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and has been republished here with permission.