Commercial Fish Operation Fined Nearly $10,000; 16 Charges Against Eight Individuals

September 15, 2005

Most fishing violations are simple, common variety types involving an individual - overlimit, no license or angling with extra lines - with a nominal fine. However, conservation officers with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently discovered a commercial fish farm or "aquaculture" operation that went to extra, illegal lengths to serve its customers. As the investigation unfolded, the officers found the case anything but common or simple. It would cross several state lines; even the officers themselves had to often stop and ponder the complexity of the deceit.

Commercial fish farms are state-licensed facilities used to raise for sale aquatic life, including fish, in artificial ponds, vats, tanks and other indoor or outdoor facilities. Regulations prohibit fish taken from area lakes from being used for aquaculture purposes. Fish farms are subject to inspection by state conservation officers.

Sport angling violations range from misdemeanors with maximum fines of $1,000 and up to 90 days imprisonment to gross misdemeanors with maximum fines of $3,000 and up to one year imprisonment. Most aquatic farm violations are only petty misdemeanors punishable by fine of not more than $300 without possibility of jail time, according to DNR officials.

Complaints were received in early June that owners of the Spruce Creek Fish Farm near Alexandria had allegedly been catching large numbers of game fish, placing them in holding tanks at the facility, using them for brood stock at ponds in Douglas County and exporting some to Wisconsin locations for commercial purposes.

State Conservation Officer Mike Shelden of Alexandria interviewed Nathan J. Broers, 33, Parkers Prairie, an employee at Spruce Creek Fish Farm. Broers admitted that he, owners Kenneth W. Gurley, 63, Abrams, Wis., Charles E. Cass, 66, Pewaukee, Wis., and their friend, Edward G. Jones, 72, Lady Lake, Fla., caught between 75-100 largemouth bass on lakes Miltona, Vermont and Irene in west-central Minnesota between June 3-5. The state's individual daily and possession limit is six largemouth bass.

The four pled guilty and were fined $6,500 under Minnesota's tough gross overlimit law. Restitution for the fish was $1,500. Broers, Gurley and Cass were also charged with illegally transporting game fish and taking fish for aquaculture purposes. The group is negotiating with the state to buy back two boats, motors and trailers seized in the investigation.

During the investigation Shelden, joined by DNR Enforcement District Supervisor Norm Floden of Perham, interviewed Broers and another employee of the fish farm that had loaded a truck with 100 bass from a pond owned by Michael L. Cook, 42, of Nelson for delivery in Wisconsin. The officers discovered that Cook had no aquaculture license.

Further investigation of Spruce Creek Fish Farm resulted in a series of mostly petty misdemeanor charges with fines totaling $1,540. Cook was charged with unlicensed sale of fish and fined $270. Michael E. Grelson, 54, Sartell, fish farm consultant and former owner, was charged with illegal stocking of aquatic life ($170), illegal transportation of fish from Wisconsin to Minnesota ($170) and illegally taking fish for aquaculture purposes ($270). Raymond H. Gehrig, 68, Spruce Creek Fish Farm co-owner, Janesville, Wis., was charged with illegal transportation of fish from Wisconsin to Minnesota ($170) and unlawfully importing minnows from North Dakota to Minnesota ($270). Cody B. Carlson, 23, Henning, a fish farm employee, was charged with illegally taking fish for aquaculture purposes ($270).

DNR officers say the investigation has sparked interest from natural resources officials in Wisconsin, North Dakota and Missouri. Wisconsin DNR has issued a civil forfeiture citation to Spruce Creek Fish Farm for the importation and stocking of fish into Wisconsin without a permit. A court date has been set for October. An accompanying order directs the fish farm, in any future contacts with the public, to notify the public that importation permits are required and can be issued by the appropriate governmental agency in Wisconsin.

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