A Southwest Washington fishing guide pleaded guilty late this morning to one count of violating the Endangered Species Act during October 2014’s salmon fishery on the Cowlitz River.
Billy “Bill” J. Swann entered the plea agreement in U.S. District Court in Tacoma after being charged earlier this month with “knowingly and unlawfully” possessing, delivering and transporting two natural-origin coho.
Sentencing of the Swanny’s Guided Fishing operator for the misdemeanor is set for early March 2017, with federal prosecutors recommending probation and a fine of between $5,000 and $10,000, according to court documents.
Douglas Tufts, Swann’s attorney, says his client acknowledges making a “dumb mistake,” was “highly embarrassed” to have killed two illegal fish and put a major former sponsor in a bad position, but hopes that others learn from the episode.
“In a high state of anxiety, he made some poor choices,” says Tufts.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington is expected to issue a press release after sentencing next year.
When the incident occurred Oct. 1, the Cowlitz was in the midst of its best return of hatchery coho and best fishery for them since 2001, according to WDFW statistics, and the river was seeing a decent return of wild coho as well.
Both stocks were listed as threatened under ESA in June 2005, along with all other Lower Columbia coho populations below the Klickitat River.
However, only adipose-fin-clipped coho can be kept on the Cowlitz, and only the hatchery-reared variety have that small fin between the dorsal and tail clipped off.
That’s performed before the young fish are released into the river so that anglers can selectively harvest the typically more abundant returning adult hatchery fish, which are meant for consumption, while letting the generally fewer wild salmon continue on their journey to the spawning grounds and help rebuild natural stocks.
On the Cowlitz that day, Swann “encouraged and aided members of the group to remove the two naturally-spawned Coho salmon from the river,” according to today’s nine-page federal plea agreement. “After landing the fish, (the) defendant clubbed the fish, killing both of them.”
A widely shared Oct. 2 email terminating the sponsor’s involvement with Swann states that that morning the three anglers had been told by Swann it was legal to keep wild coho on the Cowlitz.
According to Tufts, Swann had just arrived that day on the river after having been guiding other waters. Not all have the same regulations or limits, and some in Pugetropolis and on the Oregon Coast allow for retention of wild coho at times, but outside of the Willamette above the falls they’re generally off limits in the Lower Columbia system. It’s believed they’ve been illegal to keep on the Cowlitz since the late 1990s.
The email says that after a photo of one of Swann’s guests that day holding a coho with a fresh cut at the location of the adipose fin and another image showing Swann with a second angler hefting an unclipped, fixed-eyed coho well out of the water were posted to Facebook, online feedback suggested to the sponsor’s rep it was not actually legal to keep wild coho.
Challenged, Swann waived it off as haters just hating on him — at one time he was among the most quoted Western Washington fishing guides, regularly appearing on outdoor radio shows and in this and other magazines — and claimed Cowlitz coho were all hatchery origin, according to the email.
According to federal court documents, “At some point during the fishing excursion, (Swann) became aware that it is unlawful to take the wild salmon. Defendant contends he became aware of this fact after the fish were landed. To conceal the fact that defendant had possession of wild salmon in violation of the ESA and Washington law, defendant used a blade to remove the intact adipose fins from the salmon. Further, defendant directed the two clients who had landed the fish to falsely record on their Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Sport Catch Record Cards that the salmon were hatchery salmon when, as the defendant knew, the fish were wild salmon.”
At a January 2015 meeting with a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration special agent, Swann “denied that the salmon were taken unlawfully, and stated that photographs published on the internet of the fish with the adipose fins intact ‘could have been photo shopped,'” according to the agreement.
Ironically, the ESA violation occurred less than a month after news broke about another case involving wild coho.
Warrenton, Ore., charter skipper Curtis Clauson, who “clubbed, filleted and concealed coho salmon with intact fins onboard his vessel while guiding sport fishing clients,” according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, and “acknowledged having done the same on a regular basis over the past several years,” pleaded guilty in early September 2014 and was sentenced to a year’s probation in U.S. District Court, forfeited his Coast Guard certification and was barred from captaining boats for a year.
As a condition of today’s plea agreement, Swann is required to publish a statement in a fishing trade publication acknowledging killing wild salmon during the trip and “emphasize the importance of complying with federal and state laws protecting fish and wildlife.”
Tufts says that preserving fisheries is important to Swann and his livelihood.
Editor’s notes: In the interest of full disclosure, I fished with Swann twice eight to ten years ago, and his former sponsor was at one time a major advertiser in Northwest Sportsman magazine.