Oft-reviled fisherman in court over illicit haul 

click to enlarge Dennis Sturgell, reportedly known for flouting fishing rules, was allegedly caught with 54,000 pounds of contraband crustaceans in 2012. - S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • S.F. Examiner file photo
  • Dennis Sturgell, reportedly known for flouting fishing rules, was allegedly caught with 54,000 pounds of contraband crustaceans in 2012.

The “world’s greatest fisherman” has been pinched in a king-size crab scandal.

Dennis Sturgell, 60, whom the San Francisco Chronicle once dubbed the “world’s greatest fisherman” in a 2008 article, is facing charges of unlawful fishing in connection with an incident in San Francisco last fall in which he allegedly possessed more than 54,000 pounds of Dungeness crab.

On Thursday, Sturgell pleaded not guilty to the charges and is scheduled to return to court June 20, Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian said.

At the onset of crab season Nov. 18, a game warden for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife questioned Sturgell as his crew was offloading crabs on Pier 45 from the vessel Fierce Leader, according to court documents.

Sturgell told the game warden that his wife had renewed his permits, but allegedly that was not the case. While the captain was talking to the warden, court documents said, a crew member taped a Fish and Wildlife license number on the vessel. But that number did not permit Sturgell to fish for crab, prosecutors said.

The charges do not shock local crabbers, who describe Sturgell as a hard-working, old-school fisherman notorious for skirting state laws and industry rules.

He is known among locals for his “scab fishing.” When crab season is delayed to allow fishermen to negotiate a price per pound with wholesalers, Sturgell reportedly “thumbs his noses” at everyone by heading out on his boat and selling crabs at whatever price he wants.

“He has managed to alienate himself with a good part of the fleet,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “He would try and take as much as he could rather than seeing it as a resource to be shared by everyone.”

Sturgell has been busted plenty of times. In 2009, he was sentenced to 30 days in Tillamook County Jail for unlawful use of commercial crab pots, according to the Tillamook Headlight Herald. The 2008 Chronicle article mentioned past citations for fishing outside designated areas and illegally catching nearly $75,000 worth of cod off the Oregon coast.

A local fisherman who wished to remain anonymous said he caught Sturgell throwing dead crabs back into the water in 2004.

In the Nov. 18 incident, according to court documents, Sturgell’s crab haul was “low quality” and most had died before reaching their destination.

Grader also said the Chronicle’s “world’s greatest fisherman” title for Sturgell was simply “hyperbole.”

“The Chronicle was just doing a story,” Grader said, adding that Sturgell hasn’t won any industry awards.

maldax@sfexaminer.com

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