'Confused' fisherman fined after poaching endangered steelhead trout from Thompson River

Endangered fish nets big fine

An angler who illegally nabbed an endangered steelhead trout from the Thompson River has been ordered to pay more than $4,500 in fines — and he was only caught because he posted a photo to Facebook of himself holding the fish.

Cory James Betts pleaded guilty in Kamloops provincial court on Thursday to charges of fishing during a closed time and using prohibited gear or bait, offences under B.C.’s Sport Fishing Regulations.

Court heard Betts and a friend, Duane Michael Hepting, were fishing on the Thompson River at Steelhead Provincial Park near Savona in November of 2021. The area is only open for fishing from June to September.

Betts used an illegal barbed hook to catch a steelhead trout. He posed for a picture with the fish before giving it to Hepting, who later smoked and ate it.

When Betts posted the photo of him and the fish on a Facebook group for steelhead trout enthusiasts, it was quickly met with backlash. Someone who saw it online shared the photo with the BC Conservation Officer Service, and investigators later paid Betts a visit.

Thompson River and Chilcotin steelhead trout populations are teetering on the brink of extinction. A report prepared by a biologist as part of the investigation into Betts and Hepting estimated the population in the watershed at about 250 fish, down from healthy populations of thousands in the 1980s.

Came clean to investigators

Conservation officers showed up at Betts’ home in Vernon on Dec. 21, 2021 — once the photo posted to Facebook had been reviewed by a biologist and confirmed to show a steelhead trout.

“When they met with Mr. Betts, he stated he knew why they were there,” Crown prosecutor Monica Fras said in court.

"Mr. Betts was unfamiliar with steelhead trout and did not know he had caught one. He gave the fish that was later identified as a steelhead trout to Mr. Hepting, and the fish was smoked and consumed.”

Hepting pleaded guilty Thursday to one count of fishing during a closed time.

“The way Mr. Betts took the fish with a barbed hook, undermining any chance of release to reverse the mistake, and Mr. Hepting smoking the fish — they are both responsible,” Fras said.

“This case is an example to the rest of the public, especially as we go into the summer season, to check the regulations. There are serious consequences.”

'We made a mistake'

Betts said he and Hepting were “very confused” when fishing on the Thompson River, despite reviewing the regulations ahead of time.

“We are quite avid lake fishermen in Vernon. Unfortunately we made a mistake here,” he said in court.

“It wasn’t something we set out to do. When the COs came to my home, I was completely honest with them. I knew I made a mistake when I posted the picture of the fish and received that negative feedback, so I removed it ASAP.”

Kamloops provincial court Judge Roy Dickey ordered the men to pay fines — $4,600 for Betts and $2,500 for Hepting — and prohibited both of them from fishing anywhere in B.C. for two years.

“They did not have the requisite knowledge of the regulations or the fish they were catching,” Dickey said.

"The end result is, if you know or you don’t know, it’s still a dead fish — the consequences are the same. In this situation, where the steelhead are in such jeopardy at this time, the consequences are significant.”

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