At 7:00 am on November 7th, John McDonald had been fishing from his 36-foot fiberglass gillnetter F/V Sanjo for several hours. Over the course of the Washington State Area 10 gillnet fishery, which began at 4:00 pm the previous day, the National Weather Service had upgraded from a small craft advisory to a gale watch, and then to a full gale warning. Outside Meadowdale Park in Puget Sound the wind was blowing hard at 35 knots and the seas were around five feet. As McDonald worked his gear a skiff approached with two Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers aboard. The 28-foot Boston Whaler carried two Enforcement officers – one a 7-year veteran with a captain's license, and a second who had been on the force for only a few months, although both had been trained at a three-week course at a Federal facility in Georgia.
McDonald says the WDFW boat approached his boat with the wind, and it seemed to him the officer at the helm was having a hard time controlling the vessel. McDonald says the officer on the deck of the skiff called over the noise of the wind for McDonald's license and permit. "It was pretty hard to hear, and the weather was beating us up pretty good, so I suggested they move to the lee side of my boat. They should have known to do that anyway."
Once the State boat had maneuvered itself into the relative shelter of the bigger boat, McDonald had his papers in order, ready to show the State enforcement officer, but the water was too rough for the boats to stay together. As McDonald was suggesting alternatives to the current situation, such as waiting until the boats were unloading their fish in a more sheltered area, the junior officer, against the advice of the captain, jumped aboard the Sanjo, grabbing a projecting rail on the top of the house.
"That was crazy," McDonald says. "I wouldn't put my crew through that. What if that rail broke? My boat's too high to fish someone out of the water – especially if they're unconscious."
He told the officer, "That was stupid – never let your boss make you do that again." McDonald says the area where the officer landed wasn't ready to receive boarders. "There was a pike pole lying there – it would have been real easy to step on that and go over the side."
Once on board, the visibly shaken enforcement officer gave a cursory glance at McDonald's credentials, saw they were in order, didn't write anything down and jumped back onto the deck of the State boat. At that point, the smaller boat rammed the side of the Sanjo. "Their guard hit my boat on the guard," McDonald says. "I don't know yet if there was damage to my boat, but they hit us pretty good." McDonald says the officer at the helm shrugged it off and powered away.
McDonald notes that the next boat down the line didn't get boarded, and he says he was pretty shaken by the incident.
"I was amazed at the risk the two officers were willing to take just to check my licenses, when all they needed to do was call in the decal on the side of my boat to get their answer, or just wait until we got to a protected area from the prominent gale force winds and waves."
Sergeant Erik Olson, who commands the marine unit for Region 4 of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife defends the actions of his officers.
"Our job is to regulate and manage the resource and stop unregulated and unlawful competition," he says. "We get paid to take those calculated risks."
There is some question about that. McDonald says that in spite of the collision, the US Coast Guard declined to take an incident report because the other vessel is a state vessel, but his insurance agent has confirmed that he would be liable if the state officer had been hurt.
"I have 38 years of experience on the water in Washington and Alaska, including the Bering Sea, as a commercial fisherman," McDonald says. "It's inexcusable to put the lives of my crew, myself, my fishing vessel, and my fishing season, not to mention the lives of the two state officers, in jeopardy just to board my fishing vessel to check my licenses in those weather conditions."
The state disagrees. "If you're going to be out there fishing we're going to be out there making that contact," Olson says.
If you have had similar "contact" with Fish and Wildlife, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.