ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The 16 tons of salmon alleged to have been illegally harvested in Lower Cook Inlet were sold to a processor so they wouldn't be wasted, with the state of Alaska now holding the harvest ticket. Wildlife Troopers say while illegally driving salmon from closed areas to open ones isn’t unheard of, this case is particularly egregious.
Four fishermen were charged for the incident on July 20, in which Troopers say five vessels were used in varying roles to drive the chum and pink salmon from an area closed to fishing toward an open fishing area. The fishermen then delivered 33,328 lbs of the illegally-caught chum and pink salmon to a processor. It was then processed as any legal catch would be, so it wouldn't go to waste.
State Troopers charged the four men, who live in Homer and Anchor Point, and confiscated the harvest ticket, which tracks the weight and date of a delivery. Processors use the ticket number to pay fishermen from the season, and Fish and Game uses the ticket number to track how many fish were harvested, where, and by whom.
The outcome of the court cases will determine whether the money goes back to the fishermen, or is forfeit to the state.
Eric Winslow, Paul Roth, Robert Roth and Mark Roth were charged with crimes including driving salmon, commercial fishing in closed waters, failure to provide information to a fish transporter, failure to obtain a fish transporter permit, failure to complete fish tickets, unlawful possession of commercial fish, and failure to display vessel license numbers.
Troopers say while four fishermen were cited, five vessels were involved, either by driving the fish, catching the fish or transporting them. One was anchored in the bay before the others arrived, and didn’t appear to have an operator onboard before the others arrived, said Wildlife Trooper Capt. Rex Leath.
The four men are apparently the owners of all five boats involved. Mark Roth of Homer is listed in state commercial fishing records as the owner of the Little Star. Eric R. Winslow is the named owner of the Relentless and the Maranatha, though the mailing address for the former vessel is in Homer, and the latter in Geneva, Florida. Robert Roth, of Anchor Point, is the owner of the Star Wind, and Paul Roth is the owner of the North Star. While three of the men have the same last name, Leath said he didn't know if there was a family relation.
Dog Fish Bay, also known as Koyuktolik Bay, is one of the southernmost bays in Cook Inlet, 9 miles south of Nanwalek, near the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Leath says the area was targeted for monitoring because Troopers knew that a large pool of salmon had gathered in the closed waters, where they have generally made it “home” to their spawning stream after their time in the ocean.
“The gauntlet that these fish have to survive from when they were first born to returning to spawn, they were almost all the way completed through that gauntlet,” Leath said. “That’s why fish and game sets up those closed water boundaries, so once they get past those boundaries, they’re quote-unquote safe, from human interception.”
The area the fishermen were fishing in, the Lower Cook Inlet Purse Seine fishery’s outer district, saw a harvest of 1.2 million lbs of salmon in the 2017 season, said Glenn Hollowell, the Area Management Biologist for Lower Cook Inlet salmon fisheries. While not an overwhelming portion of the season’s potential harvest, it’s “not an insignificant” amount of fish, either, Hollowell said. Last year’s overall harvest came from 151,000 fish caught by purse seiners in that district.
Online court records aren’t yet available for the cases, and a Kenai Peninsula prosecutor wasn’t available to talk Tuesday afternoon about the case, so it’s still unclear which charges will ultimately be pursued against the men, or when they’ll appear in court.
Leath, however, said the number of fishermen involved is what makes the case stand out.
"Like with any industry, most commercial fishermen are good, law abiding people that try to do it the right way," Leath said. "It’s rare that we find this many commercial fishermen working together to facilitate a crime like this, this egregious,”