Stemming the Tide of Poachers in Laguna Beach

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Posted by on July 12, 2005 at 19:11:35:

Laguna Beach's tide pool cop casts a wide net, enforcing fishing laws and protecting sea life.

Matt Brown could easily be the envy of office workers toiling in cramped, windowless cubicles.

Brown works under the sun, is cooled by ocean breezes and wears a shorts-and-sandals uniform that exposes the bear tattoo on his ankle.

The former lifeguard and teacher is a beach cop of sorts, hired by Laguna Beach to protect tide pools that are easy prey for beachgoers oblivious to marine sanctuary laws.

He was hired six months ago, when the city decided to get serious about protecting aquatic life.

At the time, the city was grappling with an increasing number of tide pool poachers and people fishing in no-fishing zones who were taking creatures that were either too small for capture or that were entirely off-limits.

"We just didn't have dedicated resources to make enforcement on a regular, consistent basis," said Mark Klosterman, Laguna Beach's chief lifeguard.

That has changed now that Brown is on tide pool patrol 40 hours a week. He works along 7 1/2 miles of beachfront, armed with a digital camera and citation book.

He starts at 8 a.m., when the beachgoers he encounters are more likely to be tiptoeing through tide pools, armed with rakes and searching for food, than soaking up rays, he said.

Orange County's tide pools are concentrated in Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and Dana Point. Mussels, crabs, urchins and other sea creatures live in the rocky basins that fill with water during high tides.

For at least eight years, marine law enforcement problems have accounted for most municipal violations in Laguna Beach, officials said.

Brown, the city's first tide pool enforcement officer, has the authority to make arrests. So far he has cited about 36 people, including some poachers, for violations that can carry fines of up to $1,000.

He believes that his presence has discouraged tide pool poachers, although some persist.

Catching poachers is only part of his job. Brown, a former middle school teacher, also educates schoolchildren on field trips about how to be a "tide pooler" without damaging the ecosystem.

In 30 minutes, he explains tidal action, discusses rock formations along the surf line, and talks about birds and pollution. Before he took the $45,000-a-year job, children on beach field trips frequently killed the very wildlife they were studying, he said.

"His enforcement, along with the education, is really making a difference," said Laguna Beach Mayor Elizabeth Pearson-Schneider.

"When schools come down and look at the tide pools, it causes a lot of destruction," Brown said. Students "don't understand how delicate the ecosystem is and this is really a no-touch zone."

His work with students is winning praise from others in his field. "He gives a reason why you shouldn't do these things" that harm wildlife, said Winter Bonnin, a naturalist at Crystal Cove State Park.

"It helps them become good stewards. I think his presence is very important."

Cheri Schonfeld, a marine life refuge supervisor for Newport Beach, is watching Brown's work with interest.

She said she believed Brown's position could become a model for other coastal cities.

"He's doing a fine job," Schonfeld said. "He's been a teacher. He was a lifeguard. He understands the environment."

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