Before a 70-year-old Wrangell fisherman and his son entered the Juneau federal courthouse for their first court appearance, a plea deal had already been reached and signed.
Charles Jeffrey Petticrew Sr. sat in his wheelchair before U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess on Monday and pleaded guilty as charged to one felony count of conspiracy to falsify federal Individual Fishing Quota records.
Charles Jeffrey Petticrew Jr., 42, who goes by Jeff, followed in a separate hearing held later in the afternoon. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of violating the federal Lacey Act (which prohibits the illegal take and trafficking of plants, animals and fish) for falsifying IFQ records.
Federal prosecutors said the commercial fishermen lied on federal forms and Alaska Department of Fish and Game paperwork — IFQ landing permits, longline fishery logbook entries and halibut tickets — about where they were catching Pacific halibut.
In an interview, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt said the case against the Petticrews began with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Alaska office. Misrepresenting harvest locations is a big no-no for NOAA, which manages halibut fishing in Alaska per the U.S.-Canadian International Pacific Halibut Commission. The commission works to preserve the species since it swims in both U.S. and Canadian waters, and the commission makes joint harvest recommendations for NOAA to implement.
Schmidt said NOAA realized that the father-son duo couldn’t be fishing where they said they were on their paperwork, based on the number of catches they were reporting in such a small time frame.
“It was paperwork heavy,” Schmidt said of the case.
He said the Petticrews were authorized to fish in a statistical area known as 3A, which begins at Cape Spencer and extends to the northwest to the central Gulf region. And that’s where they told authorities they were fishing in the paperwork they filled out. In reality, Schmidt said, they were fishing closer to home in an area called 2C, which covers all of Southeast off-shore waters below Cape Spencer.
Schmidt, in charging court documents, said the conspiracy lasted from June 28, 2010 to May 20, 2013. During that time, the father and son harvested and sold nearly 4,000 pounds of halibut that had a market value of $23,375.
The prosecutor said in an interview that he doesn’t know why the locations were falsified in this particular case, but in general there’s a number of reasons why someone would do that. It could be to save the time it takes to boat up north, which would allow a fisherman to fish more and increase the amount of money one can make in a season.
When reached Tuesday afternoon, the younger Petticrew declined to comment.
In the courtroom, Schmidt said he could prove the Petticrew’s violations beyond a reasonable doubt if the case went to trial.
“Is all that true?” Judge Burgess asked the elder Petticrew, who introduced himself by his nickname Chuck.
“Yes,” he responded, and entered a guilty plea.
A plea deal in place calls for the Petticrews to pay a $100,000 fine — $90,000 of which is to be paid by the elder Petticrew, and the remaining $10,000 by the younger. Each will be required to serve five years of probation and to install a Vessel Monitoring System on their fishing vessel during that time. Petticrew Sr. said in court that he already ordered one online.
In exchange for their pleas, the federal government agreed not to charge them with any other crimes related to the offense.
There’s another benefit to signing a plea deal, too. Schmidt said the Petticrews could have faced “hundreds and hundreds of thousands” of dollars in fines had NOAA proceeded with civil litigation. Instead, the agency referred the case to their law enforcement office, which conducted an investigation and gave the case to Schmidt. Schmidt said NOAA agreed to drop any potential civil lawsuit in light of the plea deal, which resulted in two criminal convictions.
“This resolves any dispute with the federal government,” Schmidt told Burgess of the plea agreement.
The plea deal, reached three days after the Petticrews were charged on Oct. 15, does not call for any jail time for either of them. The maximum possible penalty for conspiracy to falsify federal IFQ records is five years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.
Burgess will decide whether to accept the plea deal at a sentencing hearing scheduled for Jan. 4, 2016.
The Empire left voicemails seeking comment from the Petticrews’ attorneys, Michael Moberly and John Cashion, both of Anchorage. They participated in Monday’s court hearing by phone.
Dave Harris, a Juneau area management biologist for the commercial fisheries division of Fish and Game, said misreporting harvest locations leads to overharvesting and can hamper conservation efforts. While the federal government manages halibut fishing, the state of Alaska handles salmon, herring, shellfish, groundfish and dive fisheries.
“Knowing where harvest occurs is very important for our management,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. Fish and Game has Southeast waters divided up into districts, subdistricts and statistical areas. They decide how much should be harvested in a given area based on the harvest information they receive from fishermen.
“A lot of times you’re comparing how this year’s harvest compared to previous years’ harvest, and you’re comparing the exact same geographical area, so when you get this misrepresenting of harvest, it screws up the data and then that will affect our management,” he explained. “The more consistency we can have year to year, the better our management decisions are.”