Ketchikan fishermen fined for violating Lacey Act

Three fishermen from Ketchikan admitted to violating a federal wildlife law on Tuesday for illegally catching halibut without the proper permits and selling it to a seafood restaurant at below market rates. Prosecutors say it was a failed ploy by the business owner to keep the eatery from going under.

Michael Anthony Welker, 52, Shane Christopher Widmyer, 34, and David Alan Vest, 39, all of Ketchikan, each pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of violating the Lacey Act for their role in the scheme which lasted from January 2012 until December 2013.

The Lacey Act prohibits the illegal take and trafficking of plants, animals and fish.

During back-to-back hearings in Juneau federal court Tuesday afternoon, Judge Leslie Longenbaugh fined the trio a combined $12,000. In accordance with plea deals in place, Welker and Widmyer were each fined $3,500; Vest was fined $5,000 because he has prior criminal convictions.

Donald Ray Thornlow, who at the time owned Narrows Inn and Restaurant in Ketchikan, pled guilty to violating the Lacey Act in October and was fined $5,000.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt said law enforcement began investigating Thornlow after several of the restaurant’s “disgruntled employees” came forward about the illegal activity. Law enforcement later went through the Narrows Inn’s financial records and substantiated the complaints.

Schmidt said the investigation showed Thornlow began having financial difficulties with the restaurant and recruited the three fishermen to catch halibut illegally to save him money and earn some for the fishermen.

Thornlow admitted in a written plea agreement to purchasing a total of at least 997 pounds of the illegally caught fish at about $9 to $10 a pound— the market value of which was over $16,000. Each of the fishermen admitted in writing to earning around $8,000-$9,000 from the numerous fishing trips involved in the illegal venture.

None of the three fisherman had the proper Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) permit to commercially catch or sell Pacific halibut. Welker only had a state sport fishing license, which allowed him to fish for halibut for personal use only. Likewise, Widmyer and Vest only had Subsistence Halibut Registration Certificates (known as a “SHARC” card) that allowed them to fish for halibut for subsistence purposes only.

A misdemeanor offense for breaking the Lacey Act can carry up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

In the courtroom on Tuesday, Schmidt argued to the judge that these sort of acts make it difficult for the federal government to manage fisheries and to manage conservation efforts. The federal government manages off-shore halibut fishing in Alaska in accordance with the U.S.-Canadian International Pacific Halibut Commission. He did not recommend jail time because he said it’s not likely any of the defendants will re-offend.

Schmidt said in an interview he believes Thornlow is no longer the owner of the restaurant, which according to its Facebook page is closed.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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