Spearing of huge sea bass sparks outcry from divers

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Posted by on April 26, 2005 at 15:19:46:

Local scuba divers are sad and outraged that one of their own used a spear gun to kill a giant sea bass, a protected species, in a marine preserve off La Jolla on Sunday.

"He makes us look like a bunch of idiots," said Gus Zanini, who scuba dives and free dives without oxygen tanks. "We have to know not only the species but the laws of take, size and possession limit before we pull the trigger. There is no catch-and-release option when hunting with a spear."

Omid Adhami, who authorities say killed the giant sea bass, was arrested after city lifeguards watched him and two male companions pull the 171-pound fish into their boat Sunday, lifeguards said.

The vessel was anchored within the San Diego-La Jolla Ecological Reserve, the lifeguards said.

Adhami may be cited for poaching and fishing in an underwater preserve, state officials said. The minimum fine for each violation is $680; the maximum penalty is $2,000 and a year in jail.

State Fish & Game Department officials are considering poaching charges against the two other men, including a second scuba diver suspected of spearfishing in the preserve.

State game Warden Erik Fleet said Adhami contends that he killed the endangered fish in self-defense and that he didn't know he was in a preserve. Adhami said his diving buddy had just speared a sheephead, a legal sportfish, when the giant sea bass approached them. The man said he feared for his safety and shot the fish, Fleet said yesterday.

Experienced divers know that giant sea bass are neither aggressive nor afraid of humans, said John Boyer, a veteran diving instructor from Vista.

"Nobody could ever get the impression that this gentle creature is the least bit threatening," Boyer said. "I've petted 600-pounders."

Derek Tarr, president of the San Diego Council of Divers, said about 80 percent of scuba divers don't hunt while underwater.

In addition, he said, "I would imagine that hunting a giant black sea bass would be as challenging as shooting a dairy cow.

"The bottom line is that people who spearfish like any other hunter should know and respect the law," he added.

While Californians are required to take a 10-hour course on safety and state regulations before they can receive a hunting license, anyone 16 and older can obtain a fishing license by paying a fee.

Among many scuba divers, giant sea bass are well regarded because of their size and docile nature.

"Having a giant sea bass swim up to you underwater is a bit like having a Volkswagen Beetle pull up to you. They're big, and they're immensely gentle, slow and curious," said John H. Moore, who operates Divebums.com, a Web site for Southern California divers.

After nearly vanishing by the 1970s due to overfishing, more and more giant sea bass are now being spotted by divers, Moore said.

Last year, a survey of about 350 San Diego County divers found that two-thirds had seen a giant sea bass in the past two years, while only a third had seen the fish more than three years ago.

State law prohibits anyone but researchers from catching giant sea bass.

Many local divers know about these fish moving through the San Diego-La Jolla reserve, said Volker Hoehne of the San Diego Free Divers Club.

"They are very approachable, particularly (toward divers with) tanks. They're very inquisitive," he said.

Some scientists doubt that the bass stay within a limited area.

"(They) move around an awful lot," said marine biologist Michael Domeier of the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research. Domeier has tagged 20 giant sea bass with transmitters that allow him to track their movements.

Giant black sea bass

A 1982 state law prohibits anyone but researchers from taking the fish. Once rare because of overfishing, the big, gentle creatures have made a comeback in recent years. While no one knows how many there are, there have been increased sightings of the giant black sea bass off Southern California. They are not afraid of divers, can live to be 100 and range in length from 3 to more than 7 feet and can weigh more than 500 pounds.

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