Fishing Guide Fined $7,500 In Cowlitz Wild Coho Clipping Case

UPDATED 12:47 A.M., MARCH 9, 2017, WITH COMMENTS FROM WDFW AT BOTTOM

A Southwest Washington fishing guide was sentenced today in federal court to pay a $7,500 fine for killing two Cowlitz River wild coho in 2014.

Billy J. Swann, operator of Swanny’s Guided Fishing out of Rainier, Wash., must also publish a statement in a fishing magazine about why it’s so important to follow the regulations.

“With so many putting so much into bringing back our cherished wild salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest, this conduct is particularly offensive,” said U. S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes. “A salmon fishing guide who makes his living off our natural resources should have respected the rules that are meant to ensure those resources will always be there for all of us.  The fact that he was willing to ignore those rules knowing others were watching makes his conduct all the more troubling.”

Today’s sentencing before U.S. District Court Judge Karen L. Strombom in Tacoma brings a closely watched case amongst Northwest anglerdom against a once widely quoted fishing guide to an end.

It serves as a reminder to always read the fishing and hunting pamphlets before heading out, and if you do make a mistake, to cop to violations quickly before you find yourself in a real world of hurt.

IMAGES FROM FEDERAL COURT PAPERS SHOW BILLY J. SWANN AND AN ANGLER WITH ONE OF THE TWO COHO KILLED BY SWANN ON OCT. 1, 2014, THIS ONE A HEN. (US ATTORNEY’S OFFICE)

The coho in this case were caught Oct. 1, 2014, by Swann’s clients on the lower Cowlitz River during an epic hatchery run, then killed by Swann. When images posted on Facebook that morning drew responses from viewers that it was illegal to keep wild coho, Swann subsequently cut their adipose fins off and told his anglers to record the fish as hatchery salmon.

Cowlitz wild and hatchery coho are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but only adipose-fin-clipped hatchery fish can be kept, with unclipped wild coho having been closed for harvest since at least the late 1990s, several years before Swann began guiding.

Clipping is done at fish-production facilities before young salmon and steelhead are released to go to sea and mature, not on a freelance basis with returning adults.

When questioned in January 2015, Swann “opted to lie to a federal agent” about the incident, according to federal court papers.

In late November 2016, after Swann pleaded guilty to one count of violating ESA, Swann’s attorney Douglas Tufts of Tacoma said “in a high state of anxiety, [Swann] made some poor choices,” a bid to make his client more sympathetic.

U.S. Attorney Seth Wilkinson originally agreed with them on a fine of between $5,000 and $10,000, but in papers subsequently filed in district court he requested the upper end of that range, pointing to aggravating circumstances.

“First, defendant was no ordinary angler. Rather, by his own characterization, defendant has ‘dedicated his life’ to fishing and is ‘one of the most reputable’ guides in the region,” reads a presentencing memorandum. “A critical part of a guide’s responsibility is to teach and demonstrate compliance with the laws — particularly laws designed to protect sensitive species. The offense conduct of killing endangered species and attempting to conceal this misconduct was anathema to his role as a guide, and was hypocritical when viewed against his claim to be one of the ‘most reputable” guides in the region, as well as an educator and industry leader.”

Ultimately, Swann was fined $7,500.

In court today, Judge Strombom called Swann’s behavior “shocking.”

“You had a responsibility and you failed miserably at it,” she said.

Samuel D. Rauch III, the acting assistant administrator at NMFS, pointed to work that’s gone toward rebuilding Northwest salmon stocks.

“This kind of illegal action by a guide, who should be setting an example, undermines the progress we’ve made in restoring salmon and squanders an invaluable resource that belongs to all of us,” he said.

NMFS special agents were assisted by WDFW officers.

“When someone violates laws intended to protect animals under the Endangered Species Act, in many cases we have two tool boxes to draw from: state or federal jurisdiction. We made the decision to pursue this case in a federal venue, which slowed the time table down, but the outcome was worth the wait,” said WDFW Deputy Chief Mike Cenci. “It was important to send a strong message in this situation, given that this type of behavior adversely affects all sectors of the fishing community, along with everyone who spends a tax dollar protecting our natural resources. It’s important to remember, though, these acts are not reflective of the professional guide community, but of an individual who, unfortunately, allowed his ethics to take a vacation in favor of a dollar. The vast majority of Washington States fishing guides are the ultimate stewards of the outdoors – their livelihoods depends on it, and in the end, they were the most vocal that Mr. Swann be held accountable. I think we did that.”

Cenci says revoking Swann’s license would require state charges and a conviction, and there are no plans on that front.

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