Fishing is an ancient and noble profession. It is also unquestionably in Max Williams’ DNA. His grandfather and parents have deep roots in California’s fishing industry, their livelihoods built on decades of skill and success with gillnets—the set, passive nets that are best suited for commercial fishing in California waters.
Max (second from the left in the photo) wanted to follow in their footsteps. He’s worked on other gillnet vessels for several years and was ready to carry on the family tradition by captaining a fishing boat of his own. With savings of nearly every penny earned since he began working full time, Max bought, restored, and fully equipped his own boat, thus sealing his commitment to a fishing future.
The only thing Max needed to launch his career was a permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to use gillnets and trammel nets. These permits are allowed only via transfer, courtesy of a moratorium placed on new permits which began in the 1980s. Careful to limit, rather than phase out the industry, lawmakers added a permit transfer process.
As a third-generation fisherman who was raised on gillnet fishing by a family with a deep knowledge of the industry’s rules and regulations, it should have been obvious that Max met the CDFW’s requirements. It wasn’t. To his surprise and dismay, the agency denied Max’s transfer permit application, effectively stripping away his livelihood—before it even began.
The basis for their denial, however, defied both common sense and established law.
The law was intended to allow permits to be transferred to fishermen who are qualified to use them, which Max unquestionably is. But the CDFW’s reinterpretation of the law made it impossible for any new fisherman to enter the fishery through a permit transfer. Permit transfer applicants, like Max, would have been required to demonstrate certain skills that only permit holders can legally perform. That is, permit seekers could qualify for a permit transfer only through activity that is illegal without the very permit they’re seeking in the first place.
This regulatory Catch-22 would have made it impossible for gillnet or trammel net users to break into the fishing industry as owners and operators of their own vessels.
Legislators’ adoption of a transfer system instead of a complete phase-out made it clear they wanted to provide a path for future generations of fishermen. Otherwise, they’d have not even bothered with a permit transfer process. Moreover, only lawmakers make laws, not state agencies. The CDFW had no legal authority to re-interpret regulations in a manner that directly conflicted with the statute.
Halibut fishing is uneconomical without the use of gillnets and trammel nets. The permit denial and the precedent it would have set would have meant that Max could fish for halibut with his new boat, nor could he have one day taken over his father’s boat. The rule also would have devastated an entire segment of a profession that helps feed communities and provides economic security for those downstream, including restaurant owners and fish wholesalers.
With his savings and career plans, as well as the gillnet fishing industry, on the line, Max fought back in state court. Represented at no charge by PLF, Max challenged the CDFW’s illegal regulatory interpretation to restore the right of California fishermen to pursue their livelihoods and rein in agency overreach under state law.
In July 2023, a California superior court found the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s reinterpretation to be unlawful and ordered the department to approve Max’s application for a permit transfer.
PLF had previously featured the Williams family in a documentary video for a related case.