Game warden nominated for Conservationist of the Year

Published 6:59 pm Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Alabama River is a resource that many people use for both business and recreation.
However, several commercial fishermen abuse their privileges by committing several violations while fishing for paddlefish.
Sergeant Alan Roach of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ACDNR) Wildlife and Fisheries Division (AWFD) noticed irregularities in the fishing reports from some of the commercial fishermen, so he led the investigation to figure out what was going on.
With the assistance of 15 officers, Operation Overwatch surveilled popular paddlefish hot spots and documented 135 cases in less than a week.
The American paddlefish is a freshwater fish with a broad, elongated rostrum (snout).
In 1988, the AWFD had to suspend the commercial and recreational harvest of paddlefish in the state due to overfishing.
It wasn’t until 2013 that the AWFD opened up the first of three regulated harvest seasons. This year, the AWFD expanded to six seasons for the commercial fishing of paddlefish in three sections of the Alabama River, one of which is in Dallas County. According to the ADCNR, only 12 commercial fishing permits were issued for the season lasting from Feb. 1 through Feb. 28.
“Here in the Selma area, they’re allowed to start the first day of February until the end of the month Monday through Friday from sunrise until 4 p.m.,” Roach said.
In the Selma area, it is legal to fish for paddlefish from Gardiner Island at the Autauga and Dallas County line all the way to the bypass bridge. The zone reopens at the Coast Guard slough and continues down to Oak Creek.
The fishermen are allowed to use gill nets and are required to check their nets every two hours. But Roach figured out that the fishermen were dragging their nets illegally to round up more fish.
“I realized they were all doing this,” he said. “They were finding fish with their fish locators, dropping their nets on them and circled around the fish to drag them in the boat which is illegal in regular commercial fishing.”
The motive for using the illegal method was simply to catch as many paddlefish as possible and get their eggs without getting caught.
“The main goal for the commercial fishermen that participate is to take the row out of the fish as replacement caviar,” Roach said. “They go for a lot of money. This year, the eggs were selling for $100 a pound.”
According to Roach, some commercial fishermen claimed to make between $40-50,000 in a month. That raised a red flag, and Roach’s experience as a game warden told him that someone was violating the rules.
“My Lieutenant gave me all the personnel I needed, and we put them on the riverbank for a week,” Roach said.
Roach, Sgt. Joe Johnston, Autauga County officer Jason McHenry and several other officers were key contributors in the operation which was the most successful bust in the department’s history, according to the ADCNR.
Boats and equipment were seized, and seven of 15 regulations were violated by the fishermen. Fines totaled up to $16,500 and eight of the defendants received a three-year ban from future paddlefish seasons.
“Judge Robert Armstrong agreed to ban them from fishing for three-years, which is a pretty big deal and he should get some kind of recognition for it,” Roach said. “That might seem harsh to some judges, but they violated the public trust. They were given a special privilege that not everybody in Alabama got to come fish for paddlefish, so they deserved to be banned from fishing in this thing in the future.”
Due to his leadership in the successful operation, Roach was nominated by the ADCNR director Charles Sykes and AWFD chief of fisheries William Nichols for the Fisheries Conservationist of the Year award.
“The recognition is nice, but I believe in team effort,” Roach said. “It was my idea, but a lot of officers participated and I couldn’t have done this without the team. My biggest concern and the reason I became the game warden is to protect the resource.”

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