Posted by . on November 16, 2001 at 02:13:44:
Local diver pleads guilty to lobster poaching
By Terry Rodgers
In what is believed to be a first in California, a recreational diver has been sentenced to jail for poaching native spiny lobsters.
A Superior Court commissioner yesterday approved a plea agreement in which Marc Sosnowski, 34, of San Diego was sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to pay a $15,214 fine.
He admitted to poaching dozens of lobsters twice in an 18-month period.
Lt. Dan Sforza, a game warden for the state Fish & Game Department, said this is the first time he can recall that a recreational diver who poached lobsters has been sentenced to jail.
"The important part of this case is the effect it will have on the public," Sforza said. "This will act as a deterrent. It will make the poachers out there think twice."
Under the plea agreement with the San Diego City Attorney's Office, Sosnowski also must forfeit $1,800 worth of diving gear he used while poaching and cannot dive or fish along the San Diego County coastline during his three-year probation.
Sosnowski's first poaching arrest occurred in December 1999, when he and another diver were caught with 94 lobsters taken from the La Jolla Underwater Ecological Reserve.
During recreational lobster season, which runs from late September through mid-March, divers are allowed to take up to seven of the crustaceans per day.
After pleading guilty, Sosnowski paid $715 in fines, performed 100 hours of community service picking up trash and cleaning restrooms in city parks and was placed on three years probation.
"He didn't get the message the first time," said Kathryn Lange, a deputy city attorney who prosecuted the second case against Sosnowski.
In June, game wardens acting on an anonymous tip caught Sosnowski with nearly 100 lobsters, which were taken out of season and caught with a spear and with the tails separated from the bodies.
The City Attorney's Office charged Sosnowski with 50 misdemeanor violations of Fish and Game laws which, cumulatively, were punishable for up to five years in jail and nearly $140,000 in fines.
Lange said she originally pushed for a one-year minimum jail sentence, but agreed during negotiations with Sosnowski's attorney to cut that in half.
"We don't usually have repeat offenders in poaching cases," said Lange. "But he was a repeat offender while on probation for his first conviction.
"Receiving custody (jail time) in this case sends a strong message that the people of California won't tolerate poaching," she said.
Sosnowski, who is married and has two children, might be eligible to serve his jail time on weekends and evenings if he is accepted by the county's work-furlough program, Lange said.
John Moore, a scuba enthusiast who operates a Web site called Divebums, followed the case closely and applauded the work by Fish and Game agents as well as the City Attorney's Office.
"We're happy with the sentence," said Moore. "It's much more than has been given in the past for serious poaching cases. We hope this sends a message to other large-scale poachers."
Sforza agreed that prosecutors and judges have been reluctant to punish poachers or heavily fine them.
In 1988, for instance, four San Diego County sheriff's deputies were convicted of poaching 25 lobsters off La Jolla and were fined $200 each and placed on three years probation.
Sforza said a major factor in the sentence given to Sosnowski was the overwhelming evidence that he was selling his poached lobsters for profit.
An undercover investigation by Fish and Game Department wardens determined that Sosnowski was selling his illegally speared lobsters to acquaintances at the Pepsi plant where he works and at least one local eatery, the Jasmine Seafood Restaurant.
In a court appearance yesterday, Hui Jing Enterprises, owners of Jasmine, pleaded innocent to a 27-count indictment filed by the City Attorney's Office in connection with the poaching case.
The business is accused of failing to keep accurate records of its fish purchases and of possessing lobster tails that were both out of season and severed from their bodies, Lange said.
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