Complex commercial fishing case leads to convictions, court finesWarden Ryan Volenberg did not avert from the diverter way back when the citizen tip first came in, nor did he shy from the paper maze of the audit.
By: By Joanne M. Haas/Bureau of Law Enforcement, Superior Telegram
Warden Ryan Volenberg did not avert from the diverter way back when the citizen tip first came in, nor did he shy from the paper maze of the audit.
Six years later, Volenberg’s sea legs are dockside and his eyes are no longer cross-eyed from carrying out an investigative plan that ended in a Manitowoc County Circuit Court on September 9 with more than $15,000 fines and more than 30 convictions of fishing violations against the Susie Q Fish Company of Two Rivers, one owner and one employee.
“We’re talking significant numbers of fish taken over the course of every year – for years – out of Lake Michigan,” Volenberg says. “What this case showed is a longstanding history of this company doing this type of activity during a number of years. I’ve done commercial fishing cases before – but this is the biggest and the most complex.”
Another thing this case demonstrated is the strong partnership Wisconsin wardens have -- and value -- with citizens who care about their resources. Without that tip, this case may not have happened and many more fish would have been illegally harvested.
“I was the lead investigator but I do want it known this was truly a group effort,” Volenberg says, adding conservation wardens based in the Green Bay area, Department of Natural Resources support staff, U.S. Coast Guard and more all were part of the team that stayed with the case for six years.
It started with a call
“I got a phone call from somebody with a tip about illegal harvest with Lake Trout,” Volenberg says. The tip concerned a Susie Q trawling vessel permitted to retain smelt and incidental chubs. However, the company was not allowed to retain Lake Trout or Whitefish.
Eventually, Volenberg was able to corroborate the initial tip’s information and later received another tip “from a completely different source,” which strengthened the validity of the initial tip even more. So Volenberg hatched an investigative plan. That was in 2007 and 2008. Volenberg stuck with it, gathering more and more information. Soon, he had enough information to board the company's trawling vessels.
The audit was the worst of it
Commercial fishing vessels use a diverter. When used correctly, diverters retain certain kinds of smaller fish while sending back to the water – or diverting --- larger fish. However, this special net had been altered so the larger Whitefish and Lake Trout were being retained along with the smelt and chubs. Now Volenberg could couple this evidence to what he had been compiling since the first tip. He kept going with his plan and sought out more sources and got even more information. The case was building.
It was time for a closer look at numbers.
“We launched a full-scale audit,” Volenberg says. And that meant perusing the company’s records. “We were able to uncover more violations involving another commercial fisher and an unlicensed wholesale fish dealer from Illinois.
“The audit really was the worst part of the investigation,” he says. “It took a lot of time -- just staring at the (paper) records and computer records."
Manitowoc County Circuit Judge Gary Bendix last month found there were violations of the commercial fishing laws and leveled fines as a result. The violations included failing to keep accurate records, not returning game fish to the water and faulty use of their nets.
Volenberg says when a warden gets good information from a reliable source, it makes all the difference.
“The big cases that we, as wardens, make always come from tips. And in this case, the citizens know more than we did,” says Volenberg, stationed in Manitowoc from 2002 until this year when his station moved to Poynette. “Citizens really do make a difference in these big cases. This tip for this fishing company case came from somebody who knew something wasn’t right and thought, ‘I am going to do the right thing and call.'”