Alaska fisherman pleads guilty to federal charges after ordering crew to shoot whale

a sperm whale
A sperm whale is seen in an undated photo published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (NOAA photo)

A Southeast Alaska fisherman has agreed to plead guilty to a federal misdemeanor after admitting that he directed the shooting of a sperm whale northwest of Sitka in March 2020.

According to federal court filings, fisherman Dugan Daniels ordered a member of his crew to shoot the whale and tried to ram it with his fishing boat, the Pacific Bounty

Daniels also agreed to plead guilty to a felony for lying about a sablefish catch in fall 2020, according to the text of the plea deal. His attorney declined comment on the case.

The charges and the plea deal were filed by federal prosecutors last week and were first reported by Court Watch, a newsletter that monitors federal legal filings nationwide.

Under the terms of the agreement, Daniels will pay a $25,000 fine and be sentenced to no more than 6 months in prison, with the exact term to be set by a judge. 

Daniels also will perform 80 hours of community service, and if he owns, operates or manages a commercial fishing boat in the future, it must be monitored by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Daniels is a board member of the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, which oversees fish hatcheries in southern Southeast Alaska.

Association manager Susan Doherty said she was unaware of the charges until contacted by a reporter. Daniels had been appointed to the board to fill a vacancy, she said, and had been serving since January.

Reagan Zimmerman, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Alaska, said the office is “unaware of any prior criminal case involving the taking of a sperm whale in the District of Alaska, so this is a first of its kind case.”

The case was investigated by the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, she said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the parent agency of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

A NOAA attorney declined comment on Friday.

According to the plea deal, Daniels recounted his encounter with the whale, “specifically, his crew shooting the sperm whale, his efforts to ram the whale with the vessel and coming within five feet of doing so, and his desire to kill the sperm whale,” in text messages to multiple people.

The document isn’t clear about whether the whale survived the encounter.

“That information is not within the public record, so our office cannot comment on the status of the whale,” Zimmerman said.

Explaining the sablefish felony, the plea deal states that Daniels falsified fisheries records so that it appeared his boat caught more than 12,000 pounds of sablefish — also called black cod — in federal waters. In reality, federal prosecutors said, he caught the fish in state waters, where the fishery is more tightly regulated.

Court records show Daniels is scheduled to appear in court at Juneau on June 6 to be arraigned and formally offer a guilty plea.

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