Fishful Thinking: Department of Fish and Game Relies on Help from the Public to Combat Poa

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Posted by Max Bottomtime on June 09, 2012 at 17:43:39:

Fishful Thinking: Department of Fish and Game Relies on Help from the Public to Combat Poaching
by Andrea Swayne
Jun 08, 2012 | 582 views | 1 | 3 | |

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Spear fisherman Scott Carlton was cited by the Department of Fish and Game for illegally taking this giant black sea bass June 1 at Salt Creek Beach in Dana Point. Courtesy photo

Salt Creek beachgoers got quite a sight on the evening of June 1 as a crowd gathered to watch a spear fisherman paddling to shore with a fish.

A really big fish.

But the mood of the moment quickly turned to anger for some who realized the catch was an illegal take of a giant black sea bass—a protected species. For the fisherman, Scott Andrew Carlton, 30, of Corona del Mar, his trek to the beach with the big fish became a regret-filled and embarrassing moment he said he will never forget—one he knows he will pay dearly for.

Carlton took the protected fish from the waters off Dana Point’s Salt Creek Beach that, within three miles of the sand, fall within a State Marine Conservation Area.

Dana Point resident and surfer Rick Erkeneff was relaxing on the beach when he noticed a spear fisherman having some difficulty paddling in with his spear gun and a very large fish and decided to help the guy out.

The sight of the huge fish, estimated at about 130 pounds, quickly drew a crowd. Even a few Ritz-Carlton guests who were looking down from one of the hotel’s balconies high atop the bluff saw the fish and hurried down to take a look.

As photos were being snapped and people were getting a better look at the fish, it became apparent that the fish was most likely a giant black sea bass and questions began to circulate regarding the legality of the fisherman’s catch.

As a concerned environmentalist, Erkeneff reported feeling angered by the illegal take.

“My reaction wasn’t to confront him although I was pretty sure at that point that this was a case of illegal poaching,” said Erkeneff, who along with others had taken photos of the fisherman and the fish. “But the fish was so big the guy approached a California Highway Patrol officer who happened to be there and asked for permission to drive his car down the paved path to pick it up.”

CHP Officer Scott Dagenais said it was about 6:30 p.m. when he denied Carlton’s request, called the California Department of Fish and Game and ordered the fisherman to remain at the scene to await the arrival of a warden to identify the fish.

Warden Justin Sandvig arrived a short time later and issued Carlton a citation for illegal take of giant black sea bass, California Code of Regulations CCRT 14 28, 10(a), a misdemeanor. According to the Forestry Bail and Penalty schedule on the department website, depending on how the court rules, the offense carries an approximate fine of $800 to $2,000 and may require the completion community service hours.

Penalties for repeat offenders increase dramatically from there and can result in jail time.

Carlton said that when speaking with Sandvig he was completely honest with the warden about what happened.

“When I saw the fish I really didn’t know what it was. Visibility was low. I was by myself and my adrenaline just took over,” Carlton said. “I saw a large fish darting through the kelp and I took a shot. I didn’t take time to think it through.”

The fish took off with Carlton’s gear so he went home to get a paddleboard and returned to Salt Creek to search for the fish and his spear gun. He paddled out, found the dead fish with spear and spear gun attached and discovered at that time what kind of fish it was.

Realizing the damage was already done, since the fish had died, Carlton said he felt his only option was to tow it in.

“I felt really bad about having killed the fish. I went through the thought process and felt like it would have been even worse to kill something and just leave it there,” he said. “Leaving a dead fish didn’t seem like the right thing to do. It just felt wrong to me, so I towed it back to the beach.”

Carlton, a doctoral student in a chiropractic program, said that he has felt remorse since the incident and, as a conservation-minded person, the last thing he would ever have wanted to do is knowingly take a protected species. He reports that the kill has been weighing heavily on his conscience making it difficult to concentrate on school.

“I wish I could take it all back,” Carlton said. “As a student, a big fine won’t be easy to deal with but I have to live with the consequences of my behavior and I am ready to accept whatever consequences they (Fish and Game) see fit.”

Department of Fish and Game Captain Dan Sforza said he and Warden Sandvig cut the fish into pieces, and then Sandvig swam it out past the surf and returned it to the ocean.

According to Sforza, Fish and Game law is based on a philosophy of “strict liability” meaning that to cite someone for breaking the law, intent need not be proven. And, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

“Basically that means killing a protected species is illegal whether you meant to or not,” said Sforza. “Fishermen and hunters are responsible to know the laws when taking fish or any other type of game.”

Sforza said that these days he and other wardens don’t see giant black sea bass being taken illegally very often as most know that it is against the law and the fish has been a somewhat scarce but rebounding species.

According to a press release on the incident, published by the Department of Fish and Game on June 5, giant black sea bass were abundant in Southern California waters prior to the 1950s but became scarce due to over hunting and their desirability as photographic trophies.

Their docile behavior, slow movement and preference for near shore, rocky and kelp forest environments, also contributed to the over harvesting of the fish that can grow to a size of up to 500 pounds and seven feet long, the press release said.

But with regard to poaching of other fish, Sforza said he and his colleagues write tickets all the time for violations from unlicensed fishing to the taking of undersized fish or more than the legal limit of fish.

“Size limits, quantity limits and ‘no take’ zones aren’t arbitrary but scientifically chosen to allow for a certain number of spawning and life cycles of species,” he said.

“And although poaching laws are based on ‘strict liability’ and in court we don’t have to prove intent, we do have to explain why the limits exist—unlike traffic officers who go into court not having to explain why a stop sign exists where it is, only that a driver violated a law by failing to stop.”

Restrictions are designed to maximize a species’ ability to thrive. For example, a larger fish is generally more fecund, meaning that it is more fertile, has more eggs and therefore a greater ability to reproduce. In the case of the giant black sea bass, which are very slow growing, this means that their reproductive cycle is also relatively slow.

By the ’80s giant black sea bass near the California coast were facing the possibility of extinction and Fish and Game put protections into place.

“I honestly believe most people follow the law but if you consider the thousands of people out there, we can use all the help from the public that we can get,” Sforza said.

While Sforza said that, for safety reasons, he doesn’t advise citizens to confront suspected poachers, he hopes that anyone who observes suspicious activity will call the DFG Cal Tip line at 1.888.DFG.CALTIP (1.888.334.2258) to report violations.

The entire state employs just fewer than 400 game wardens; a number that Sforza said seems impossibly small when factoring in employee days off.

“We all work out of our homes and are on call,” he said. “So sometimes there is a bit of a lag time in our response and, although we try, we can’t respond to every single call. We do pay close attention to patterns, areas where certain types of violations occur, and make these ‘hot spots’ a part of our regular patrols. Since we don’t have the manpower to be available 24/7 365 days a year and Marine Protected Areas cover a huge area that can’t possibly be patrolled, we rely heavily on help from the public via the Cal Tip line.

“Bottom line; don’t make assumptions about possible poaching activities,” he said. “Be a good witness and call in a good tip.”

Sforza also said that since it is every fisherman’s and hunter’s responsibility to know the law before they go, he advises the use of the DFG website at California Department of Fish and Game as it is an excellent source of information. Also, stores that sell hunting and fishing gear, like tackle shops, outfitters and even Walmart, are supplied with free copies of DFG regulation handbooks.

Detailed maps showing these areas are available both in the free booklets and on the DFG website.

As part of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) of 1999, new South Coast Marine Protected Areas went into effect in January 1, 2012 for local Southern California waters. And the DFG just announced that with the June 6th establishment of North Coast Marine Protected Areas, the state has successfully completed a network of MPAs stretching the entire coast from Mexico to the Oregon border to replace the old “patchwork of protected areas without specific goals and objectives.”

As time goes by with the new MPAs in effect, Sforza said DFG expects “no take” areas to reach carrying capacity causing rebounding fish species to seek out neighboring areas for habitat—places like the conservation area off of Salt Creek Beach where the big sea bass was taken.

Fish and Game calls this overlap a “spillover effect.”

The spillover is apparent in other areas of the state, like the northern Channel Islands, where Sforza said wardens often see fishing boats congregated right along the boundaries of older successful reserves where fish are protected and rebounding. He suspects that this will soon be the case in the waters off Dana Point due to the proximity to the new “no take” zone off of neighboring Laguna waters.

Another overlap, one that wardens count on for help, is the overlap of ocean and environmentally aware locals that act as additional eyes and ears for Fish and Game.

“Surfers, fishermen, paddlers, bird watchers, even sunset watchers, we are all connected in ways we may not be aware of and will gladly self regulate,” Erkeneff said. “Most of us don’t want poachers bringing down the sport and ruining things for everyone.”

And in a close knit community like Dana Point connections are far from uncommon and often reach beyond a shared love of living near and enjoying the ocean.

Case in point: Erkeneff recognized officer Dagenais as a fellow surfer and the brother of the girl he took to senior prom years ago. Sforza and Dagenais discovered they had gone to high school together and Sforza and Erkeneff lifeguarded together for 10 years.

“It’s a smaller world than we think and it’s our duty to pitch in and take care of it,” Erkeneff said. “All we have to do is do the right thing.”

Carlton said he wishes he had done the right thing and if he could say something to other fisherman as a cautionary tale he would advise them thusly:

“If you’re not 100 percent sure about the type of fish you see or the regulations for taking it; don’t pull the trigger. Don’t let excitement and adrenaline take over,” he said. “As someone who wants to be known as a responsible spear fisherman, I learned a big lesson that day and will be a lot more careful from here on in.”

Read more: Dana Point Times - Fishful Thinking Department of Fish and Game Relies on Help from the Public to Combat Poaching

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