The BC Conservation Officer Service (COS) wants a “significant ban” placed on a relatively new Chilliwack sturgeon fishing guide who has a serious record of hunting and fishing violations in Alberta.
And while Gerard Visneskie faced more than 100 charges in Alberta some of which he pleaded guilty to, it’s his alleged mishandling of sturgeon in the Fraser River and guiding without a licence that has him in hot water in B.C.
A number of members of the guiding community attended the administrative hearing held at the Chilliwack Natural Resource office on Feb. 24.
Back in Alberta, Visneskie faced 70 charges for, among other things, hunting in a closed season, hunting without a licence, spearfishing illegally, fishing in closed waters and causing unnecessary suffering to an animal.
He eventually pleaded guilty to eight charges, was fined $34,000 and banned for hunting for eight years and fishing for two years.
His wife Sophie Goupil, who was present Friday but was not part of the hearing, faced 39 charges in Alberta, pleaded guilty to four and was fined $16,000 along with similar bans.
A detailed account of the investigation and court proceedings, including photos of the couple with illegally harvested animals, was written up in Western Canadian Game Warden magazine.
The article was presented by Conservation Officer Cody Ambrose as evidence of his past behaviour, but Visneskie refuted its contents.
“I don’t care what people say, I am not the guy in this article,” he told the hearing. He called the article, written by an Alberta Fish and Wildlife Officer, a “creative” piece “designed to sell magazines and for political purposes.”
He further made the unusual argument that he was actually guilty of several criminal charges for weapons violations in Alberta, but these were dropped as part of a plea bargain he made for the finding of guilty to the eight wildlife and fisheries charges.
“I was definitely guilty of those,” Visneskie said of the criminal charges, adding that he had an illegal handgun, firearms loose in his house and an insecure loading room.
He said further that when it came to sentencing, he regretted the plea bargain, which he made for financial reasons because of legal expenses.
“To this day I wish I had fought that to the bitter end,” he said.
Visneskie claimed he was the target of competitor guides in the Fraser River, and that’s what got the attention of the COS. But government ecosystem biologist Erin Stoddard testified the reason the new guide’s practices came to his attention was because Visneskie requested to be included in a tagging program.
“The potential for harm was high,” Stoddard said of various photos and videos showing clients of Visneskie forcing sturgeon to the bottom of the river or a boat ramp in ankle deep water.
In defending his practices, Visneskie showed Stoddard several photos of other guides similarly holding recently-caught sturgeon. Stoddard replied, however, that in almost all of the images the fish were out deeper, the fish’s bodies supported by the water.
Beyond the handling practices, it was Visneskie’s proclivity to use social media — something that led to the charges in Alberta — that has him in trouble. On his company’s Facebook page, Hooked Up with Screamin Reels, there were a number of posts from before he received his guiding licence on Aug. 26, 2016.
One photo used as evidence by Ambrose showed two men holding a sturgeon in very shallow water at the Mission boat launch. The image is dated Aug. 3, 2016 with the caption, in part: “Another 6’1” to the shore and some happy customers!”
Ambrose said that the use of the word “customers” here and elsewhere on his Facebook page in videos and photos prior to Aug. 26 shows he was guiding without a licence.
But Visneskie responded that in all the photos prior to Aug. 26, he was with friends and that since he planned to start a business, it was a white lie to help him build clientele.
“That was merely entrepreneurial on my part,” he said.
Visneskie told the hearing that he and his wife already “paid dearly” for mistakes they made in Alberta and that he can’t be tried again for what happened there.
“We have double jeopardy in this country,” he said.
A decision on whether Visneskie should be banned from fishing, hunting and/or guiding in B.C. was not made by Friday regional manager Mike Ramsay who headed up the hearing.
A decision should be made within a month.