Robert Thorstenson Jr. was among a group of seiners cited on Sept. 2 during a 12-hour opener in Sitka’s Silver Bay Terminal Harvest Area. The commercial fishermen were targeting chum released by the local hatchery in a special harvest area that he says was unfamiliar to the group.
“It was a big, weird shaped triangle that I’ve never seen before that we’ve never fished before,” Thorstenson told CoastAlaska.
The hatchery had forecast as many as 90,000 chum salmon in the area. But state fisheries biologists drew lines to keep gear away from freshwater streams where wild salmon would be headed to spawn.
Mindful of when he was charged in 2019 with fishing over the line in Crawfish Inlet on western Baranof Island, Thorstenson says he was being cautious.
“The last thing I wanted was a ticket,” the Juneau-based fisherman said. “So I call the trooper to me and I asked him where I could legally fish, and he told me where I could legally fish. So I went over there and set there, and then he came over and wrote me a ticket.”
Wildlife Troopers: It’s up to skippers and permit holders to understand the rules
Both the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Alaska Wildlife Troopers declined to comment on specifics citing the open court case. But the Department of Public Safety said in a statement it’s the responsibility of the permit holder and vessel captain to follow all rules and regulations.
Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for the agency, wrote in an email that a wildlife trooper was patrolling the seine opening on Sept. 2.
“As part of his patrol the Wildlife Trooper contacted multiple vessels before the opening to make sure that they were aware of the boundary lines that had been established by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game,” McDaniels wrote. “After the fishery opened, the wildlife trooper cited four vessels for fishing in waters closed to commercial seining. The ultimate responsibility of following the regulations, emergency orders, and statutes of Alaska is the duty of the permit holder and vessel captain.”
Court documents show that law enforcement officials confiscated 5,170 pounds of chum salmon from the fishing vessel Vigilant, of which Thorstenson was the captain. The permit holder was also cited, records show.
A big fish in the small world of Alaska fishing
Until 2018, Thorstenson was one of the state’s preeminent lobbyists in the commercial fisheries world. He’s also a former executive director of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association and was part of the state’s delegation to help negotiate the Pacific Salmon Treaty.
The charges are similar to Thorstenson’s 2019 alleged violation, also on the west side of Baranof Island. There, he was accused of fishing for hatchery-released chum too close to a freshwater salmon stream.
He says the terminal harvest areas set up to catch hatchery-released fish are purposefully separated from where wild stocks are strong and downplayed any threat to other species like pink salmon.
“If there was any wild salmon stocks that were even meaningful enough to make a freakin’ sandwich out of, we wouldn’t let them put a hatchery there,” he said.
And he disputes that the Crawfish Inlet stream — which is classified in the state’s anadromous waters catalog — had wild fish in it.
“It’s not an anadromous stream. It’s a mountain stream that has never had a fish in it,” he said.
A former Fish & Game deputy commissioner for the defense
That point was backed up by a former top Alaska Department of Fish and Game official who visited the area with Thorstenson about a week later in September 2019.
“I looked around, there was not a sign of — actually to tell you the truth — I didn’t find a single fish of any species in that stream,” former deputy commissioner Charlie Swanton told CoastAlaska.
He explained his decision to get involved on his friend’s behalf.
“Bobby, at that point in time was … I guess, you could say, upset about the whole thing,” said Swanton, who had retired from the agency at the end of 2018 after nearly 40 years at the agency. Thorstenson goes by “Bobby.”
The two realized after walking the stream they they couldn’t find any salmon in the freshwater, which had been closed off for 200 yards as a buffer for returning wild stocks, Swanton said.
“Bobby turns around and goes, ‘Well, I think I just found my expert witness,’” Swanton recalled. “That’s how I got involved in it.”
To bolster this claim, Swanton filed a 12-page affidavit with the court, calling into question the agency’s rationale for continuing to list it as a salmon-producing stream. He says the nominations from these streams are from legacy data dating back to the 1970s that cannot be readily verified.
“It’s easy enough to prove to get it listed,” Swanton said in a recent interview. “But it’s very difficult to — or more difficult — to have it removed.”
In his affidavit, he also vouched for Thorstenson’s character.
“It is without comprehension that Mr. Thorstenson would knowingly violate a closed water boundary that protects wild salmon stocks,” Swanton wrote to the court.
Prosecutors have already downgraded the 2019 misdemeanor to a violation. And half of the $50,000 value of the 41-ton catch seized has been returned by authorities to allow Thorstenson to apply for more grant funding.
Thorstenson says he’s still committed to clearing his name rather than accepting the fine.
“It’s just a violation — but it’s still a violation,” he said. “Isn’t that a bad thing?”
The 2019 case is scheduled to go to trial in December. The second charges likely won’t be heard in court until 2022.