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Rammed or shooting the gap? Salmon seiners clash in Prince William Sound criminal case

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: May 22, 2018
  • Published May 22, 2018

The collision as seen from the deck of the F/V Temptation. (YouTube)

An unusual criminal case in Cordova that centers on a violent fishing boat collision two years ago is expected to wrap up without jail time.

The June 2016 crash between seiners in a Prince William Sound cove near Whittier revealed a dark side of Alaska's multimillion-dollar pink salmon fishery.

Kami Cabana, the 25-year-old third-generation fisherman at the helm of the Chugach Pearl, faced first-degree felony assault charges for what prosecutors called an intentional ramming.

Cabana's Girdwood family has fished for more than 50 years. She's a well-known local skier featured in a 2016 North Face film.

Her attorney argued it was Jason Long, the Cordova-based skipper of the Temptation, who was actually at fault: He tried to force his way through a lineup of boats with a dangerous maneuver.

A U.S. Coast Guard investigation found the Temptation "dramatically increased its speed" about 12 seconds before the collision, according to an October 2017 final assessment letter. Long spotted a school of salmon in the bay and tried to pass through an opening between Cabana and the Silver Streak before they closed the gap.

Cabana never stopped her forward motion as she closed the gap, the report found. The Silver Streak's captain put his boat in reverse.

Long never slowed, the report states.

The Coast Guard hearing officer faulted Cabana and the other skipper. But he also found Long could have avoided the collision had he taken "proper evasive maneuvers" rather than speeding up.

The two sides reached a plea deal in the 2017 criminal case Friday in Cordova District Court.

The deal likely involves no incarceration for Cabana, now 27 and still fishing.

Who's to blame?

Minutes before a morning pink salmon opener that June day, boats nearly filled the cramped head of Waterfall Cove in Hidden Bay as seiners hauling skiffs jockeyed for position.

Salmon seiners use vertical nets weighted at the bottom and fitted with floats. Alaska's pink salmon catch, canned or frozen for international sale, was worth $169 million last year.

Long admitted he tried to shoot the gap between two vessels, part of what he called a blockade by the Cabana family.

That's where the stories diverge.

The state Office of Special Prosecutions claimed Cabana sped up and rammed the Temptation, injuring a deckhand seriously enough he was medevacked out by air.

"She never slowed down," Long said in an April interview. "I didn't realize until probably two seconds before she hit me that she was just wide open. Then she slammed into me broadside."

He said others overheard radio traffic suggesting Cabana's father told her to "keep 'em outta here no matter what you do."

The defense claimed that Long caused the crash by aggressively gunning through a too-small gap between Cabana's Chugach Pearl and another boat.

Cabana's converted Pearl Harbor tour boat was no match for Long's "souped up speed boat" despite his contention that she was traveling as fast as 10 knots when the collision happened, Cabana attorney Patrick Bergt said Monday. "Her boat is too big and underpowered to do anything close to that."

Captured on GoPro

The criminal case was filed last year but the incident took on new life when a 6-minute GoPro video surfaced on social media in March. (Heads up: The video contains some not-safe-for-work language.)

In the video, deckhand Gerald Cunningham stands next to the nets in the Temptation's stern as the boat's engines get louder. The Temptation speeds up as it enters the bay. Cunningham is grinning, but then suddenly hunkers down like he's anticipating a hit.

The Silver Streak collides with the boat's starboard side, then the Chugach Pearl collides with the Temptation's port side in a jarring crunch of metal on metal.

Cunningham is thrown backward to the deck. An exhaust stack topples onto his prone body. He stands up, wobbly, and says he's OK but dabs blood from his head.

Other boats circle the Temptation. A woman can be heard shouting, and Cabana is visible in the crow's nest, waving her arms and yelling.

Cunningham had to be airlifted for medical care and still suffers after-effects of his head injury, Long said last month. Nobody on the other boats offered any help.

"Her first words were 'Get the f— out of here so I can set my net,'" he said. "Then her relatives surrounded me."

Cabana's attorney Patrick Bergt, however, says Cunningham's injuries weren't immediately obvious or his "compassionate" client would have offered help.

"She is yelling," Bergt acknowledged. "Nobody knew the crewman was injured."

Plea deal

Under the plea agreement reached Friday, Cabana will plead guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment.

In exchange, she's required to do 120 hours of community work service and complete a U.S. Coast Guard boating course and pay any restitution ordered for the injured crewman, according to a sentencing memo. She's already completed the work service in Girdwood and did the course, her attorney said.

It wasn't immediately clear what restitution the state would seek.

The state prosecutor handling the case, Aaron Peterson, said Long "wanted the case to be over."

Both sides settled a civil case last summer for an undisclosed amount.

"He has been made whole through separate proceedings, and is ready to put this behind him," Peterson wrote in an email statement Tuesday.

People on both sides won't like the outcome of the case, he wrote. Some will believe the resolution is too lenient, others that Cabana shouldn't have been charged in the first place.

Even witnesses near the collision saw very different things, Peterson said.

"The State understands that people are concerned about violence in commercial fisheries," he wrote. Some cases shouldn't be reduced — egregious conduct, intentional ramming — but this "is simply not that case, when one views all the evidence."

Valdez District Court Judge Daniel Schally said during Friday's hearing that he expected to dismiss the charges before the next scheduled hearing in December hearing provided Cabana meets all the conditions of her release, Bergt said.

Long expressed frustration Monday, calling the deal a slap on the wrist that sends a message to the fleet that "orchestrated" blockades like the one he says he encountered in Waterfall Cove will be tolerated.

"It's probably going to get worse," he said. "There's a lot of people I know that are going to be really pissed off about that. Give it 10 years and a Cabana could get hurt because another person is gonna ram them."

He says what happened on the water that day ruined his life. His family left Alaska and moved to Port Angeles, Washington. He's flying to Ketchikan next month to work on a tender but sold his Alaska home, as well as his boat and fishing permit.

Cabana, too, "paid the price" for the accident through "months of online bullying" that included threats to her and her family, the  sentencing memo states. Exhibits filed in the case include Facebook messages like "You going to jail, b—-" and "trashy, classless and downright ugly — c—."

Bergt said Monday that his client now fishes alone, skipping openers or showing up late, to avoid confrontation.

"She's now forced to fish in places where other people are not," he said.

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