OLYMPIA - Three Clark County fishing guides are facing criminal charges and forfeiture of their boats after taking undercover officers from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) on a Columbia River fishing trip without the proper licenses.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which took part in the sting operation, is also investigating the three men for multiple safety violations, ranging from a lack of life jackets for passengers to, in one case, no documentation of required drug tests. Names of the three men are being withheld until formal charges are filed in South District Court in Pacific County.
Capt. Mike Cenci, who leads WDFW's marine enforcement division, said the three men were arrested Aug. 19 in the town of Chinook when they could not produce valid charter boat licenses after guiding a fishing trip to the popular "Buoy 10" fishing area at the mouth of the Columbia River. Although all three men are licensed fishing guides, only licensed charter boats can take paying customers salmon fishing below the Longview Bridge.
"There's a big difference between a fishing guide license and a charter boat license, and these guys ought to know that," Cenci said.
The primary difference between the two types of licenses is that the total number of charter boat licenses in Washington state has been capped since 1977 under a limited-entry law to protect against overfishing, Cenci said. Existing charter licenses can, however, be transferred, often fetching tens of thousands of dollars on the open market, and require a yearly renewal fee of $480 for state residents.
By contrast, there is no limitation on professional guide licenses, which can be purchased by state residents for $150 per year.
Under state law, conducting an illegal charter boat operation is a gross misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. At the time the three men were arrested, WDFW seized their boats - valued at $25,000 to $40,000 - and has since began forfeiture proceedings, Cenci said.
WDFW enforcement officers are currently examining logbooks from the boats for possible evidence of other illegal charter trips, which could result in additional charges, Cenci said.
"We've been watching these guys for a while," said Cenci, noting that the arrests followed weeks of surveillance by members of WDFW's Statewide Investigations Unit. "Operating a charter service without a valid license is a serious crime, and people should know that we're taking sure action."