Armed with tape measures, state Fish and Game investigators this summer descended upon three cold storage facilities in Los Angeles and sized up 15,973 California spiny lobsters.
Their measurements led to the filing of criminal charges Monday by the Los Angeles city attorney's office against three seafood importers and nine other firms for purchasing, possessing or selling undersize baby lobsters.
In all, 2,595 of the lobsters measured less than 3 inches long, the minimum legal size, according to Fish and Game officials and Deputy City Atty. Donald Kass, the prosecutor in the case.
The state code requiring baby lobsters to be at least 3 inches long is designed to ensure a continuing supply of the popular crustaceans by guaranteeing them time to mature and reproduce, said City Atty. James K. Hahn.
"The kind of irresponsible harvesting and dealing that took place in these cases would soon put an end to the species," he said.
If convicted, the 12 firms could be punished by fines of $1,000 for each violation.
Three of the defendants are seafood importers accused of selling the undersize lobsters to the other nine firms, which are either wholesale or retail dealers, Hahn said.
The undersize lobsters were discovered during surprise Fish and Game inspections from June through August. The baby lobsters had been harvested in waters off Mexico and imported to the United States, Hahn said.
He said Mexico also has a law similar to California's prohibiting the harvesting of lobsters under 3 inches long.
The import companies named in the complaint are Crest International Corp. of San Diego, Galletti Brothers Foods of Vernon and Ocean Garden Products Inc. of San Diego.
The other nine defendants are Central Fish & Oyster Co. of Los Angeles, Red Lantern Inn Inc. of North Hollywood, City Sea Foods Inc. of Los Angeles, King Fish Inc. of Burbank, Day Lee Meat Co. of Los Angeles, M & Y Imports Inc. of Boyle Heights, Tuna Ventures Inc. of San Diego, El 7-Mares Seafoods Inc. of Boyle Heights, and Tony's Fresh Fish Market of Redondo Beach.
All of the defendants are scheduled to be arraigned Nov. 21 in Los Angeles Municipal Court.
Authorities said the confiscated lobsters have been placed in a freezer for possible use in future sting operations.