little star

The seiner Little Star working for the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association in happier days/CIAA photo

Already struggling financially and facing unhappy neighbors in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay, the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) now finds itself being drawn into a public-relations mess with four board members charged in an explosive case of illegal fishing.

And one of the men charged believes CIAA efforts to grow more salmon is at the heart of the issue.

“This is all about politics,” commercial seiner Mark Roth said Thursday. “There are groups out there who want to shut down hatcheries. That’s what it’s coming from….It’s all trumped-up charges.”

Roth is a long time, Homer-based fisherman and the co-founder, along with wife Linda, of a commendable organization that in the off-season leads youth on missions to Costa Rica to perform aid work.

The Roths’ “HRTWAM – Hebrew Roots, Teens with A Mission”  “camp teaches the teens the difference between religion and service,” according to Crucified Life Ministries. “The campers are trained, equipped, and released (activated) to make a difference by serving others. One of the main goals of this camp (is to help the teens progress from just ‘talking’ about the Scriptures to living them with those around them.”

Mark has a solid reputation on the Kenai Peninsula. Court records reflect that except for a few traffic tickets and once hiring an unlicensed crewman to work on his commercial fishing boat, he’s never had a run in with the law.

“I’ve been fishing out here for 41 years and never had a ticket,” he said. “How may tickets are written ever year?”

Enough that there is no quick and easy way to tabulate them all, according to the state, and it is unusual for a commercial fisherman in Alaska to go 41 years without a ticket. Court records show that most of the members of the board of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA), the regions’ most powerful fishing lobby, have been ticketed at least once for breaking fishing rules.

Fishermen regularly fish too close to open-closed lines, stray across and get ticketed. As Mark noted, those cases almost never make the news.

In the news

For the 64-year-old Mark, sons Paul, 35, and Robert, 39, and friend Eric Winslow, a 61-year-old Alaska fishermen whose home is in Florida, it was different. They this week made the news in a big way on the Kenai and beyond

KTUU-TV in Anchorage reported Alaska Wildlife Troopers were accusing the men of “particularly egregious” behavior leading up to the catch of “16 tons of salmon.”

Mark noted the latter claim is misleading. The group, he said, caught about twice that much salmon, but what only charged illegally harvesting 33,000 pounds of salmon.

KBBI-News on the Peninsula, quoting AWT Kenai detachment commander Rex Leath, reported that “while some people may look at a closed water case and think it’s not the end of the world, it actually could literally be the end of a run in an area. In this case, there’s 33,000 pounds of fish that will not make it back up that creek that were supposed to make it back up that creek to spawn. That’s a big deal for us.”

National Fisherman, a widely read trade publication covering the fishing industry, read that description as “creek robbing” and headlined its story “Crooked catch: Four fishermen nabbed for creek robbing in Alaska.”

Mark said the idea the men were engaged in “creek robbing” is simply absurd, and he noted not a single news organizations (other than this one) every tried to reach the fishermen.

Creek robbing involves catching fish in or near the mouth of a stream. Mark said his boat, the F/V Little Star, and the others fishing at Dog Fish Bay were nowhere near close to a stream mouth.

Courts documents have Mark charged with driving fish from closed waters to open waters and illegally transporting fish, and ticketed for not having his purse seiner properly identified, though he said the state numbers and the state sticker are clearly visible on the his boat.

Whether they are the exact 12-inch size required by law is unknown.

Mark believes he and the others were specifically targeted by AWT while fishing on the southwest tip of the Peninsula and wrongly charges. And the only reason he can think of for that happening is their involvement with CIAA.

Farming Alaska style

CIAA is one of four, regional, private-nonprofit hatchery operations the state of Alaska helped to get started in the 1970s to farm fish before fish farming became a big business and was banned in the 49th state. 

The Alaska hatcheries, however, continued as salmon “ranches,” not farms. The Alaska operations breed and raise fish in captivity, then send them off as fry and smolt into the wild pastures of the North Pacific to mature.

Think free-range cattle, and you’ll get the idea. The fish return to be caught by commercial fishermen and by the canneries which need salmon for “cost recovery.” They are then marketed as “wild-caught” Alaska salmon to differentiate them from farmed salmon.

Financed and controlled by commercial fishermen, the hatcheries are now tens of millions in dollars in debt to the state which provided them with loans. CIAA owes the state about $13 million. But the financial status of the hatcheries has not been a big issue.

Controversy has centered on net-pen sighting, hatchery fish straying and, increasingly, the competition between hatchery fish and wild fish, a competition that in some cases the wild fish appear to be losing.

Scientists studying Prince William Sound (PWS) as part of a search for lingering environmental effects from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill stumbled on something else.

“All sockeye salmon stocks examined exhibited a downward trend in productivity with increasing PWS hatchery pink salmon returns,” they reported in a 2017 paper. “While there was considerable variation in sockeye salmon productivity across the low- and mid-range of hatchery returns (0–30 million), productivity was particularly impacted at higher levels of hatchery returns. Pink salmon have been found to negatively affect sockeye salmon productivity and growth from British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, Bristol Bay, Kodiak, and Russia.”

The sockeye affected by those Sound pinks included the fabled fish of the Copper River, the most valuable sockeye in Alaska. At the start of the season this year, those fish were bringing fishermen $9.50 per pound at the dock, but the season quickly turned into a bust.

Coming as it did on the heels of a 2017 Sound harvest of 48.7 million pinks – more than half of them hatchery fish – out of a run of more than 55 million of the so-called humpies in the Sound, the 2018 Copper sockeye run was a disaster. Only 26,000 sockeye were caught before the fishery closed after just three commercial openings in May. It then struggled to meet spawning goals. 

With the Copper run failing – it would eventually meet the spawning goal but with little commercial, dipnet or sport harvest – the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and a host of other conservation-minded organizations petitioned the state Board of Fisheries to freeze planned hatchery expansion in the Sound.

The Board, however, refused to act, saying it would take another look at the issue this winter.

Hatchery resentments

The decision did not sit well with some people in Homer at the southern end of the Peninsula who were still upset about the large numbers of Sound pinks that strayed into Lower Cook Inlet last year.

Humpies showed up in some streams at a level 35 times greater than the environmental safety threshold  once suggested by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but as state Director of Commercial Fisheries Scott Kelley later noted, the standard was never made official so the rate is meaningless in the eyes of the Department. 

Hatchery critics already upset about the net pens CIAA was given a permit to put in Kachemak Bay State Park outside of Homer took Kelley’s comment as a slap in the face.

Nancy Hillstrand – a commercial fish processor, the widow of a commercial fisherman and one of the chief hatchery critics in the Homer area – said she was at the point where she couldn’t believe a thing state officials said about hatcheries. It appears the  massive, privately run, commercial-fishermen-controlled hatcheries have come to operate largely free of state oversight, she said.

The private, non-profit hatchery operations are supposed to be under the control of so-called “regional planning teams” (RPTs) made up half and half of hatchery officials and ADF&G employees, but Hillstrand said the RPTs appear to be run by the hatcheries.

Along with serving on the CIAA board, Mark Roth sits on the Cook Inlet RPT along with commercial driftnetters Dave Martin and Steve Vanek. The state contingent includes Sam Rabung, the state aquaculture director. Rambung in on record saying he has seen no evidence that Alaska wild salmon stocks are being harmed by hatchery salmon.

He also suggested to Juneau Empire reporter Kevin Gullufsen that the hatchery fish might actually be helping boost Alaska Chinook and coho (silver) salmon numbers. As Gullufsen reported:

“Pink and chum salmon fry are a prey species for Chinook and coho salmon, he (Rabung) added, so it’s worth noting that, at least in the early stages of their life cycles, hatchery pink and chum salmon are the prey for king and coho.”

Other scientists have taken issue with that view. They say fast-growing pink salmon have a competitive advantage over slower maturing sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon. Because of that and because of the boost from the hatcheries, Seattle researcher Greg Ruggerone and Canadian colleague James Irvine have estimated that 67 percent of the adult salmon in the North Pacific are pinks and pinks, which mature in only two years, make up 48 percent of the entire biomass of salmon in the ocean.

The biomass number is lower than the adult number because most species of salmon spend two to five years in the ocean. Most of them don’t survive to maturity.

The data presents sufficient reasons for Alaska lovers of wild fish to be worried about hatcheries and leave them with some motive to want to discredit hatchery supporters, but whether Alaska troopers could some end up tied into that at this point remains wild-caught speculation.

CORRECTION: An early version of this story had the poundage of the catch at Dog Fish Bay wrong.

















33 replies »

  1. The Roths Tender was seen up in Kenai last year with 70,000 chums….I wonder where they got these chums from?…This family has been seen before creek robbing and transporting fish. They just haven’t been caught before.

    Why weren’t they catching cost recovery pinks at their beloved Tutka hatchery making money for the Aquaculture “empire” that owes over $13,000,000.

    PS I thought it was $16,000,000 CIAA owes the state with this years $3,000,000 borrowed to fish a septic tank and build a hunting camp over at Paint River. These guys are so corrupt they squeek!

    • ADF&G is extremely lax on enforcement in lower Cook Inlet. The reasons are obvious: rather a small fishery and not the dynamite of upper Cook Inlet what with the politics and all. To me, it’s pretty telling that they made this effort. Of course, we will never know the details but I’m guessing they smelled a rat. I’m hoping Mark Roth does his patented huff in front of the judge. That will be a sorely needed ‘learning experience’ for him and hopefully, his offspring.

    • I’ve seen large numbers of Murres feeding in the Gulf in May alongside many Loons. They have an entirely different bill than a Loon but it appears they are after similar prey. And a former F & G employee told me that they’ve been seen chasing sand lances at around 300 ft deep. Must be small sand lances but they clearly are able to get at different foods.

    • agimarc, yesterday, while hiking trail alongside Montana Creek near Juneau, I picked up a Murre from the trail that appeared to be healthy (it just couldn’t get airborne). I released the bird into a small tributary and it was just amazing watching it fly underwater against the current.
      We have experienced some flooding lately and that may have been the reason for that Murre being up on the trail-it also may have been looking for some bigger water. Whatever the reason, that bird didn’t belong anywhere near that freshwater so far inland IMO. Who knows if that bird can find a place to take off again but even if it does the odds are stacked against it.

  2. Sounds like a pretty simple case of going above the markers, and driving fish into the open area,for Harvest, without regard for sustainability.Probably get a slap on the wrist, because of political connections,just another outlaw seign gang from Homer,##Cabanas

  3. Having fished there in the 80’s this is pretty simple: There is creek-fed a lagoon behind Koyuktolik spit that has a closed area for escapement purposes,

    and the boyz took it upon themselves to plunge a bunch of chum salmon from behind the markers into a waiting seine. I know all these guys and IMO, they all should get what’s coming to them. I know someone else who was there that day and just assumed they had a special harvest permit (the Roth’s do a lot of cost recovery) and thus were doing that. NOT! Not a proud day for commercial fishing and fishermen. That Mark sounds belligerent about the matter should surprise no one. Sadly, in whatever fishery one would chose there are actors that feel entitled. That Fish and Game was surreptitious about it is a tell.

    • Thanks for your in-depth look at what these yahoos were doing, monk!
      Unlikely these folks are being “framed”, too. I suspect that there will be a camera involved to show a jury how to “drive” salmon.
      Many violations are at the expense of other fishermen, and they are usually remedied with fines and loss of fish, but this is a case of “creek robbing” that risks that stream’s ability to produce more fish. They may just have to sit out a few seasons IMO. Of course they have to be found guilty, first.

  4. Having fished there in the 80’s this is pretty simple: There is creek-fed a lagoon behind Koyuktolik spit that has a closed area for escapement purposes,

    And the boyz took it upon themselves to plunge a bunch of chum salmon from behind the markers into a waiting seine. I know all these guys and IMO, they all should get what’s coming to them. Not a proud day for comme

  5. KTUU-TV in Anchorage reported Alaska Wildlife Troopers were accusing the men of “particularly egregious” behavior leading up to the catch of “16 tons of salmon.”
    Mark noted the latter claim is misleading. The group, he said, caught about twice that much salmon, but what only charged illegally harvesting 33,000 pounds of salmon.

    So they caught twice that much, 66,000 pounds?
    ADF&G LCI Dogfish Bay 7/30 harvest report: 4,355 pounds. Three deliveries, dogs and pinks.

    This is very confusing.

  6. The law/regulation book is 31/2″ thick, but i found it. 5 AAC 39.190 Driving salmon prohibited. It is unlawful to drive salmon or attempt to dive salmon from waters closed to salmon fishing.

    • I suspect there is not a name, other than the specific creek, but there are markers on each side of the creek that indicate how far away one must fish. And there could be more than one creek inside that Dog Fish Bay, too.

  7. Is herding fish really illegal? i seem to recall fishermen put out their nets and then launch a skiff and drive fish to the nets. Or fishing boats circle a school of fish to ball them up and then set their net out. i could not easily find a restriction on driving fish. I do find that in close area you may not fish. But is driving fish fishing?

    • I’m not familiar with the wording but it is not allowed to go upstream in a creek and pour chemicals to drive the fish out of said creek into waiting nets. This case is similar except they are charged with driving fish out of a closed area (though not a creek).
      That said Al, while the herding of fish is not illegal, as long as it’s in open waters, the herding of said fish from a closed area into an open area is where the problem is in this case IMO. I’m unsure of the “chasing” methods being charged here, but I suspect the method is immaterial in the statutes.

      • Bill, while the vast majority of our laws/regulation in alaska are written and recite what a person can not do or use, and if the law/regulation dose not state you cannot do or use something, it is permitiable.

      • While it’s always possible some attorney may find a loophole in our laws/regs. Al, I would be shocked. Creek-robbing has been always an issue for our salmon laws and if the laws/regs. don’t cover it properly we would be on notice to fix it pronto.
        I suspect the definition of “chase” may cover many sins, here.

  8. 16 ton = 32,000 . I find it interesting that commercial fishermen almost all get tickets in their career. What does that say? The law says lack of knowledge or accidental violation is not a valid defense. So that concept won’t hold up in court. Most fishermen use gps these days and are very good navigators . Being as there were four of them it’s almost 100% probable they knew where they were . This is interesting coming on the heels of a Chinese boat caught illegal fishing. I say it begs the question- how many other illegal fishermen are there? IMO it was incredibly reckless of these fishermen to risk illegal activity in Alaska waters -that begs two questions (#1 are they innocent? Who would be so foolish as to do something so blatant ? That says to me it’s very possible they are innocent or it was a complete accident ) the #2 question it begs is how many other illegal fishermen are there? Are there ways they could fish illegally without getting caught? Are there net modifications- time of year- or methods . It would be much safer to do it in the open ocean like the Chinese and Mexicans . I say it’s all a valid question when certain areas / waterways don’t meet predicted runs and escapement becomes a concern for various species and Cook Inlet as whole . Where are those missing fish ? It would be most effective to catch them in hard to patrol waters such as open ocean. All the same I’m glad fish and game enforcement did their job . Most fish and game troopers have decent reputation – not into framing innocents so probably these fishermen were stealing. How many fish and game personnel were involved and how many years on the force ? That’s important. IMO

    • By a similar token Rayme, most drivers get moving violations in their careers. What does that say? Heheh!
      There are simple fishing violations (drifting over the line into closed waters) that are handled as simple fines (much suspended for first-time). Repeat offenders are weeded out because their offenses collect points against their permit with enough points resulting in that permit not being allowed to fish.
      This particular case involves the chasing of fish (from a closed area) into a legal area and is not a simple case of drifting over a line. It appears to involve the taking of (perhaps) an entire run of chums from one creek. Unless these guys plead guilty, there will be a trial with much testimony about their exact behavior.

      • Bill: would be an interesting case if it goes to trial. i watched a lot of maneuvering seiners in Southeast bays in my life down there on a boat long ago. were they just maneuvering to make a set or herding fish? it would have been hard for me to say.

      • Both seine and gillnet openers can get dicey, if there are fish showing, and the boats are jockeying for the first set (often the best). While some boats may tend to try to get fish out of a closed area they would not want to be seen doing it IMO. This particular case seems to be just such a method and they were seen (may even be cameras involved).
        Nothing wrong with herding of fish as long as the herding takes place in open waters.

      • Bill as you have massive experience perhaps you or another informed captain could shed light as to wether it’s common for commercial fishermen to purposely pirate extra fish ? Are outlaw fishermen common ? How would those people operate ? Personally I never saw it occur during my career. Why would a fishermen risk their permit ? Something that’s their livelihoods. Is their loan so big they have huge financial bind ? There were rumors though . In Big game guiding outlaw activities used to be rampant especially pre 1980s era . There is still some that make the paper . Just wondering.

      • Rayme, my opinion is that creek-robbing was common prior to limited entry and that was a specific push for a program whereby fishermen had an interest in the future of the fishery. That said, there are still those who tend to fish illegally.
        The important takeaway here is that this particular behavior is different than a ticket for drifting across a line during an opener. My opinion is that this behavior is not common anymore but it does happen. Kudos to enforcement in this case.

    • the tons has been fixed. the writer’s error.

      your last question would seem to be the key one. were they herding fish or were they simply maneuvering to make a set or sets? that could get very gray.

  9. My experience is that certain bays are closed to fishing because of fish congregating there while waiting to enter one or more streams in that same bay. The taking of these fish tends to be more concerning that “straying across a fishing line” because the congregated fish can be the entire run for that particular stream. Now, Roth says he was nowhere near any stream and that will be argued at his trial and he may be correct in that but he still either was involved in chasing those fish out of that bay, or he wasn’t. Should be a fun trial.
    Is this entire seine crew all board members of CIAA, including the “Alaska fishermen whose home is in Florida?”

  10. Craig,

    Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t really understand this paragraph:
    “Mark noted the latter claim is factually wrong on its face. The men have been charged with illegally harvesting 33,000 pounds of salmon, he noted and they contest that. Sixteen tons would be more than twice as much at 72,000 pounds.”
    Are you saying that Mark isn’t good at math and doesn’t even know what a ton weighs? That might help in a court case if they are able to display that he has no understanding of numbers how would he know he crossed over a line into closed waters…

    • no, the author of the story screwed it up and fixed it. the challenges of working without a net. any fresh-eyed, half awake copy editor would have caught that.

      actually, i’m thankfully so many did. it’s good to have intelligent readers.

    • fixed it. corrected it. someone’s mental math was bad late last night. Apollo 13 WOULD have hit the atmosphere wrong and bounced off into space forever…

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