Oregon deck boss charged with assaulting federal fishery observer

Law enforcement officers this week arrested the deck boss of a groundfish trawler from Astoria, Ore., for allegedly assaulting, impeding and interfering with a federal fishery observer while the vessel was at sea in May.

Richard Clayton Palek, 46, was arrested in Knappa, Ore., on Wednesday, Aug. 13, by a special agent and enforcement officer from NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement with the assistance of the Oregon State Police.

Palek was charged with a federal misdemeanor violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which prohibits anyone from forcibly assaulting, resisting, opposing, intimidating, sexually harassing, bribing or interfering with a fishery observer. The charge is punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 and up to six months in prison.

“We’re committed to protecting the safety and security of observers,” said William Giles, Special Agent In Charge of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement for the West Coast Region. “They are professionals with physically demanding jobs in challenging conditions. Fortunately most vessel crews recognize the importance of observers and treat them with the respect they deserve.”

Approximately 80 to 120 federal fishery observers on the West Coast work aboard fishing vessels to collect data and biological samples in 15 different fisheries. Fishery managers and scientists use the data from observers for stock assessments and fisheries research, to monitor catches and quotas, help avoid overfishing and ensure that fisheries remain sustainable.

“Observers are trained scientists who add to the credibility and integrity of fisheries by collecting data that is essential to the management of healthy fish stocks and marine ecosystems,” said Richard Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries, who began his career as a fisheries observer in Alaska. “Their work benefits the fishing industry and the public.”

Federal fishery observers are authorized under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act and are essential to the independent collection of unbiased commercial fishing data. In 2012 more than 900 fishery observers nationally logged 83,000 days at sea in 47 fisheries throughout the United States.

The West Coast Groundfish Observer Program is managed by NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Protecting observers is a priority for NOAA Fisheries, Deputy Assistant Administrator Samuel D. Rauch III wrote in a June email to fishery management councils across the country. “The success of fisheries management in the United States is due in no small part to a robust observer program and an effective partnership between NOAA, the Councils, and the fishing industry,” he wrote.

Home page photo by Jeff Bash, Northwest Fisheries Science Center