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Feature Article: Pacific Star Violations

Calif. Fish and Game Commission issues sportfisher Pacific Star five-year license suspension for Fish and Game code violations

BY BLAKE WARREN/WON Staff WriterPublished: Feb 13, 2018

Boat owner shocked at heavy-handed, ‘unprecedented’ decision

pacificstarPACIFIC STAR HAD its license suspended for five years by the California Department of Fish and Game Commissoin this past Wednesday, Feb. 7 for violations of the Fish and Game Code.

SACRAMENTO — What started with an anonymous tip that led to an undercover operation and subsequent boarding by California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers (DFW) way back in 2013 ultimately resulted in the subsequent five-year suspension of Pacific Star Sportfishing, Inc., following oral arguments heard at the Department of Fish and Game Commission meeting this past Wednesday in Sacramento. An official CDFW press release issued after the hearing on Feb. 7 stated: “The California Fish and Game Commission today ordered a five-year suspension of the license of Pacific Star Sportfishing, Inc., a recreational sportfishing vessel operator.”

The release went on to read regarding the undercover operation: “… DFW officers observed 18 violations, including poaching within California’s marine protected areas (MPA) network, exceeding the possession limits of several fish species, using illegal methods to take fish and failing to report accurate counts on logbooks. Based on these violations, CDFW filed an accusation with the Commission against Pacific Star, requesting that the Commission suspend this commercial passenger fishing vessel license.”

The Pacific Star — which operates out of Pierpoint Landing in Long Beach from April through the end of June, and out of Seaforth Landing in San Diego July through November — is a popular Southern California sportboat (at both landings) that has been owned by Christine Bullard, sole owner and behind-the-scenes office manager of Pacific Star Sportfishing, and operated by her husband, Robert Michael Bullard, captain of the Pacific Star from 2000 to present. Then second-captain Rick Slavkin — now the current operator of the Oceanside 95 — and other crewmembers were also accused and cited for various Fish and Game infractions.

The sportfisher faced a two-day hearing on Sept. 26, 2017 for said transgressions, in which the administrative law judge on behalf of the Commission and Pacific Star proposed that the Commission suspend the license for two years, with only the first 90 days of the suspension taking effect so long as the Pacific Star complied with certain terms of probation. The Commission subsequently rejected that proposal as in adequate at a subsequent hearing in December, and gave CDFW and Pacific Star 15 minutes apiece to argue their positions, which ultimately resulted in the Commission’s decision on a five-year suspension this past Wednesday.

“Illegal take of our marine resources, especially in MPAs (Marine Protected Areas) undermines the tireless work of law enforcement, scientists, the public and fishermen in California,” said Commission President Eric Sklar. “The Commission took ample time to review the department’s accusation and we hope this serves as a message that we do not take lightly these sorts of violations and will ensure those who are responsible receive the appropriate penalty.”

The boat’s violations date back to a pair of 2½-day trips (May 17-19, June 28-July 1) in 2013, in which numerous infractions were committed, witnessed and cited by DFW wardens.

Stemming from a citizen tip (which Chris Bullard claims to have been made by a disgruntled employee) that the DFW received in February of 2013 alleging potential Fish and Game violations, two undercover DFW wardens, Anthony Marrone and Gregory Grinton, boarded the Pacific Star as passengers for the first trip in question, May 17-19, 2013. The officers would bear witness to multiple Fish and Game violations, including: fishing inside the protected Santa Barbara Island State Marine Reserve, fishing waters deeper than 20 fathoms while inside Cowcod Conservation Area, illegally taking rockfish with the use of ganions (lines with more than two hooks), taking over-limits of several species of rockfish, failure to accurately report the full and correct record of fish taken in the skipper’s logbook (including failure to report several different species taken) and failure to report smaller-sized rockfish taken along with fish taken and consumed during the trip.

A deckhand aboard the trip referred to as “Garr,” while helping the undercover wardens with their tackle prior to the boat’s departure, also stated, “I don’t know exactly where you guys will be going, maybe around the islands, maybe in some areas you’re not supposed to, but whatever happens on the boat stays on the boat.”

The second trip in question was upon the Pacific Star’s return to Pierpoint Landing from another multi-day fishing trip on July 1, 2013 carrying 26 passengers, in which DFW wardens inspected the vessel and interviewed passengers and crew at the dock. Upon inspection, the wardens found that Capt. Bullard’s logbooks did not accurately reflect the amount of fish taken, including limits of boccacio that went unreported, and over-limits of both scorpionfish and unspecified rockfish. The inspection also revealed 63 fillets without the skin attached, preventing the wardens from determining the species of the fish, and also noted that one passenger did not have a fishing license in his possession on the trip.

Capt. Bullard was convicted of three misdemeanors for the May 17-19 trip aboard Pacific Star in April of 2014, and in proceedings in June of that year was convicted of another three misdemeanors for the violations documented on July 1, 2013. In both cases, Bullard pleaded nolo contendre to all misdemeanors, paid a total of $4,620 in fines and was prohibited from fishing as a boat captain for 90 days. While charged with 18 causes for discipline, Capt. Bullard was only officially convicted of 6 of those charges in court.

Chris Bullard, Capt. Bullard’s wife and sole owner of the boat, spoke to WON on Sunday, saying, “I’m astounded and shocked that they could come back with such a biased decision. And I think it’s a really sad day for anglers and hunters in California. Did we admit to this and take responsibility for what happened? Absolutely. Did we try to do the right thing and own up for our mistakes? Absolutely. Do we deserve to lose our entire livelihood for this? Absolutely not. We’ve never denied anything that we’ve done and taken responsibility for all of it, including the actions of the crew. There’s no current legal standing for this.

“This is a case of complete government overreach,” she continued. “This was a planned witch hunt from the very beginning and there’s absolutely no precedent for this kind of decision. I have no idea why there’s this full-court press going on against us. A five-year suspension would put us completely out of business. I’m sorry for what happened, and if I could change it, I would. But I just did what any business owner would do when it happened... I made changes.”

Bullard said that following the convictions, she made numerous changes to the boat’s policies, citing clearer captain’s meeting speeches to passengers on state regulations at the onset of trips, saying where the boat expected to be fishing and installing a new GPS to ensure the sportboat stayed out of MPAs going forward, along with turning over the crew and having contracts signed by all parties acknowledging state fishing regulations. “When I found out, I let everybody go with the exception of my husband,” Bullard said.

She also noted her husband’s track record of being a licensed captain for 32 years, with only these two particular instances of any Fish and Game Code violations attributed to him. There have also been no instances of any violations by the Bullards since 2013.

“They [DFW] had almost five years to put more undercover officers on the boat if they wanted to and follow up on what we were doing, but they never did,” Chris Bullard said. “They first filed these charges against Mike [Capt. Bullard], then it took them a whole ’nother two years to refile the case against me as the owner, after they made an administrative mistake. They [CDFW] keep bringing up all of these 18 violations, but they’ve only been able to make just six of them stick.

“Of those on the [Fish and Game] Commission, there’s not one of ’em with a fishing, hunting or outdoorsy background, and I think every angler, hunter and gun owner should be very, very concerned with that,” Bullard added. “They’re ultimately looking for no fishing, no hunting.”

Two deckhands were also noted as having committed code violations. Second Captain Slavkin pled guilty to violating Fish and Game code regulations, although he claims he was not at fault.

“I was not guilty of any of these allegations,” as to the violations and his own punishment by the State, Slavkin told WON this past weekend. “Rather than spend resources I did not have in fighting these spurious allegations, I was forced to plead guilty to violating Sections 632(a) and 27.50(b). I declined the State’s offer to act as an informant and provide evidence against Bullard. Given Pacific Star Sportfishing’s recent attempts to blame me for their actions and disparage my character, I regret this decision.”

According to the Bullards, Slavkin was let go as the second captain of the Pacific Star after said incidents, yet Slavkin was adamant in his perception of the ordeal otherwise, saying, “I was not terminated from my job with Bullard. Rather, I quite due to his continuous violations of state and federal law. I worked for Bullard in 2013 as a second operator and my duties were limited to driving the vessel at night. In that capacity, I drove out of the MPA. Additionally, it was not up to me to decide where or how to fish; this was solely Bullard’s decision.” Christine Bullard says otherwise, and that it was Slavkin who did the driving into the MPA.

Regardless of where every exact truth lies in this particular matter, there are numerous moving parts to this case and a whole lot of things to consider going forward. Namely, the reach and impact of the Department of Fish and Game Commission and its decisions in such punitive matters moving ahead.

The five-year suspension issued by CDFGC on Feb. 7 is one without precedent. Never before has such a heavy-handed punishment been given to a California sportboat operator for violation of Fish and Game regulations.

According to Christine Bullard, her current attorney reportedly told her regarding the case, “I have been representing boat owners for 40 years, and I have never seen them go after somebody like this.”

“Every dime I have is in this boat,” Bullard said. “Fifty years of my parents’ hard work to leave me this money when they passed, and I’ve put every dollar I have into this business. Putting us out of business for violations which we’ve already admitted to, taken responsibility for and taken our punishments issued by the court — I just can’t understand it.”

Bullard said the Pacific Star is currently in the boatyard for annual maintenance until springtime as she decides how to precede moving forward.

“We’ve had lots of support despite the few people taking pot shots at us. We are considering all of our options,” she said, “and we have many.”

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