A Petersburg skipper whose crew was caught on camera throwing seal bombs into a state-owned hatchery's waters, driving salmon into his seine net, will pay more than $15,000 in a plea deal.
Andrew Kittams, 43, entered a guilty plea in October to one count of driving salmon from closed waters in the case dating back to July 2013, according to a December troopers dispatch. In exchange, prosecutors dismissed a charge of using explosives to drive salmon.
"The conviction stems from a July 2013 incident at Hidden Falls Hatchery where Kittams' crew, on board the F/V Sara Dawn, were documented using explosives to drive salmon from a closed area into an active seine set," troopers wrote.
Sgt. Aaron Frenzel, a Juneau-based wildlife trooper, said by phone Wednesday the illegal fishing occurred on July 21, 2013, at the hatchery on Kasnyku Bay, about 15 miles east of Sitka on the opposite side of Baranof Island.
The Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, which operates the hatchery under contract with the state, said on its website the facility's average annual return of 1.7 million king, coho and chum salmon from 2001 to 2010 produced "a larger chum return for common property harvest than any other facility in North America." The 2015 return sharply declined, however, to a point where managers considered closing the area to fishing.
"The run has attracted up to 240 seine boats during openings and provided fishermen with significantly greater fishing opportunity in the early portion of their seasons," NSRAA officials wrote.
It's not illegal to fish near a hatchery like Hidden Falls, Frenzel said, which is why several fishing vessels usually congregate near them during the summer. Hatcheries denote the legal area for fishing by deploying a boundary line supported by cork floats; at Hidden Falls, the line was about 50 yards away from the hatchery's nearest pens of fish.
"It's a pretty competitive fishery in those areas, because there's a lot of product in those areas," Frenzel said. "Of course, there's more inside the boundary line, because that's where they keep their stock for future years."
On July 21, 2013, however, Kittams had his crew set up a seine net right next to the boundary line, Frenzel said. He said they then threw four or five seal bombs over the boundary line into the hatchery's waters and waited to collect a bounty of fish. A seal bomb is a small underwater explosive device used to scare animals away from fishing grounds.
"The boat was along that line and tossing seal bombs into the pens to knock those fish into the areas that were open to fishing," Frenzel said, adding there were an estimated 100,000-300,000 pounds of fish in the enclosed area.
During his time as a wildlife trooper, Frenzel said, he's seen one case involving a fishing vessel illegally taking fish from a hatchery -- and it didn't involve using seal bombs, a rarely prosecuted offense.
"It's something we get reports of, but it's not something we take action on regularly," Frenzel said. "You have to have someone there at the time."
Fortunately for troopers, there was precisely such a person at the hatchery that day -- someone who recorded footage of the Sara Dawn's crew committing the offense.
In a clip of that video obtained by Alaska Dispatch News through a records request, a Sara Dawn crew member is seen lighting and throwing a series of seal bombs past the boundary line, one at a time.
Scott Wagner, an operations manager at NSRAA, confirmed hatchery staff had recorded the video, then passed it on to wildlife troopers as evidence.
According to Frenzel, hatchery staff immediately reported the violation to troopers. A Juneau-based patrol vessel, already deployed in the area, caught up with Kittams and the Sara Dawn about two and a half hours later.
"Initially there was some denial, but it did come out that there were seal bombs thrown," Frenzel said.
According to Frenzel, none of the crew were charged in the case due to Kittams' command of the Sara Dawn.
"As the permit holder and as the captain of the vessel, he directed his crew to do this," Frenzel said.
In addition to a $3,000 fine as part of his plea deal, Kittams was ordered to pay $12,375 in restitution to the state. Frenzel said the value for restitution was based on the estimated value of his catch from the tossed bombs.
"The fish had already been sold to the tender, and the state just asked for restitution afterward," Frenzel said.