update: Marked lobsters spring trap on suspects

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Posted by on March 19, 2007 at 16:23:17:

In Reply to: Marked lobsters spring trap on suspects posted by msblucow on March 19, 2007 at 09:53:10:

The small hole in this lobster's tail indentifies it as one of the creatures planted by the Department of Fish and Game to nab a suspected poacher.
(Bob Chamberlin / LAT)

A three-month undercover investigation on the open ocean ended before dawn today when state game wardens arrested two men found in possession of about 500 pounds of lobsters trapped illegally in Santa Monica Bay.

The men were arrested without incident at a Cerritos Channel marina as they prepared to unload their catch, unaware that it included about 15 marked lobsters placed inside their wire-mesh traps a week earlier by Department of Fish and Game divers.

Tiny diamond-shaped holes that would not occur naturally had been punched in the lobsters' tails to mark them, said state Department of Fish and Game Lt. Dan Sforza, one of two divers who seeded the suspects' traps set 116 feet below the surface on the rocky ocean floor.

"We had about 10 minutes to get down there and put the lobsters inside their traps--that's not a lot of time to fool around," Sforza said. "A lot of effort went into this case. I feel pretty good about how it went down."

Michael Hulse, 59, of Terminal Island, and crewman Ramon Sambrano, of San Pedro, were booked at the Long Beach Police Department.

Although Hulse and Sambrano are among the 246 people in the state licensed to take California spiny lobster, authorities allege that that the pair had been taking the crustaceans from a site off-limits since the 1930s.

For those who protect coastal wildlife resources, it was a significant bust. Authorities say they know commercial poaching of lobsters occurs, but they rarely catch anyone.

Only a few commercial fishermen have been arrested in recent years for poaching lobster in large numbers, authorities said. In 2002, two men were caught off Dana Point with 110 baby lobsters, all too small for legal harvesting.

The lobsters seized today from Hulse's boat were taken to a San Pedro fish market, where they were expected to be sold for about $10 a pound, authorities said.

"We'll store the marked lobsters in water and hold them as evidence," Sfoza said.

Proceeds from the sale will be deposited into a special escrow account.

"If the suspects prevail in court, they'll get the money back," said Department of Fish and Game Capt. Martin Maytorena. "If they're found guilty, the money will go into a Department of Fish and Game preservation fund."

Investigators believe boat owner Hulse had trapped the pricey crustaceans several times at the same site since lobster season began on the first Wednesday of October. The spot is about two to three miles off Santa Monica Pier, where fishing for "bugs"--as lobsters are called--has been forbidden since the 1930s.

"We estimate he's fished that area once a week," Maytorena said, "and we caught him in the act."

Hulse hit dock about 3 a.m. in the marina sandwiched by massive harbor cranes and bobbing oil pumping stations. He had been under surveillance for months, authorities said.

Mike Norris, lead investigator and a game warden assigned to the San Pedro and Long Beach areas, said the case began "in the first week of January, when we stumbled upon him coming in from the open ocean at high speed in the dead of night with his running lights off, stealthy as can be."

"We stopped him and found four to six [containers] full of lobsters," Norris said, "and no good explanation for how he got them."

The investigation's code words, Operation Panulirus, were taken from the scientific name for the shellfish delicacy, Panulirus interruptus.

The wily and elusive species, which is highly regarded for its meaty tails, is found in the caves and crevices of rocky reefs. The season, which runs from late October to mid-March, is timed to coincide with the period when the lobsters are not breeding and moving into deeper waters.

Judging from the number caught in recent years, the population is healthy.

So far this season, California spiny lobster fishers have taken about 1,057,000 pounds, worth an estimated $7.8 million, according to Kristine Barsky, a state biologist and expert on the California lobster fishing industry.

A record 1.1 million pounds of spiny lobster was hauled out of California's clear green water in 1949.

"We know there is commercial lobster poaching going on," Barsky said. "But we have no way of estimating the scale of the problem."

Operation Panulirus involved about 15 game wardens, some of them from as far away as San Diego and Ventura, and assistance from the Long Beach Police Department. They relied on radar, electronic surveillance equipment, telescopes and binoculars to monitor the suspects' activities, and bait their traps with the living evidence.

Then they waited.

"Lobster season ends Wednesday, and the weather was getting nasty on the open ocean," said state game warden Lt. Kent Smirl, "so we knew he'd have to go out and service his traps sometime soon."

"He headed out Sunday night," Smirl said. "After that, it was just a matter of waiting for him to come back with the lobster.

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