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3 Patrol Boats Get the Gaff in Fish and Game Budget Cut : Regulation: Two of the vessels slated for retirement are based in the city. Officials, activists say the loss will hurt enforcement efforts.

August 08, 1993|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — In what may be good news for a few fishermen, but bad news for fish, the California Department of Fish and Game plans to beach three of its nine marine patrol boats, including two based in Long Beach--the 100-foot Hammerhead and the 40-foot Marlin.

Retiring the boats, Fish and Game officials say, is necessary because the department has been hit by a $525,000 budget cut that mainly affects the Wildlife Protection Division, which enforces state fish and game laws.

Environmentalists and some Fish and Game employees, especially those who work on the boats, say the loss of the vessels will seriously diminish enforcement of fishing regulations, particularly those involving commercial fishing operations.

"It's like a Christmas present for fishermen who break the law," said Capt. Gene Martin, 45, a 21-year veteran of the department and skipper of the Hammerhead since 1987. He admits that his reluctance to see the Hammerhead mothballed is partly personal: "I hate to lose a boat; it's like losing a part of you."

But Martin says his primary concern is for the fish.

"Losing the boat absolutely will have an impact on enforcement," Martin said. "There will be a substantially reduced number of enforcement contacts, particularly in areas further offshore. And there also will be a loss of deterrent effect. With our shutdown, commercial fishermen further offshore will have much less to fear."

Gil Sawyer, 47, the Hammerhead's mate, agrees that the loss of the sleek, gray, spotlessly clean boat will leave a gap in fishing regulations enforcement.

"It's bad news for honest fishermen," Sawyer said. "Without us, the bad guys are gonna be a lot more free to roam."

Bob Sulnick, executive director of the Santa Monica-based American Oceans Campaign, an environmental group, called the beaching of the Fish and Game boats "dangerous and shortsighted."

"Any time you decrease regulation the potential impact is really quite dangerous," Sulnick said. "When budget cuts like this occur, it's a statement by society that marine issues really aren't vital. But they are vital."

Fish and Game officials in Sacramento, however, say they have no choice but to beach the boats. They also say that by shifting other boats and game warden assignments--and also by increased use of aircraft patrols--the department will still be able to keep California coastal waters covered.

"We're going to try to get the best coverage we can," said Greg Laret, deputy chief of the Wildlife Protection Division. But, he added, "we're taking a big pop in general fund money. We simply can't afford to insulate (the marine patrol boats) any more."

Laret said that none of the department employees who work on the boats will be laid off. Instead, he said, they will be shifted to other assignments. The Hammerhead carries a crew of five--the captain and two other game wardens, along with a mate and an engineer. The Marlin has a crew of three, all game wardens.

Built about 10 years ago as an offshore oil field crew boat--it was then called the Candy Bar--the three-engine, aluminum-hulled Hammerhead was bought by the Fish and Game Department in 1987 for $150,000. Another $350,000 was spent rebuilding the engines, altering the crew's quarters and making other improvements, Martin said.

The boat is equipped with a 19-foot skiff for boarding fishing boats and also carries machinery that allows it to confiscate fishing nets and the catch from boats that violate fishing laws.

In addition to guns worn by the Hammerhead's three game wardens, the boat also is equipped with shotguns and some automatic weapons.

Because of its large size and ability to operate in rough waters, Martin said, the Hammerhead patrols areas offshore as far as 120 miles or more. It also can stay out for longer periods than the department's other, smaller patrol boats. The Hammerhead's average patrols last about four days, but on occasion have stretched to several weeks. In the past four years it has conducted more than 800 boardings of commercial fishing vessels.

The Hammerhead concentrates mainly on enforcing equipment and fishing-area regulations for commercial fishing boats, while smaller patrol boats generally concentrate more on sport fishermen.

The Hammerhead's patrol area extends from the Mexican border to San Francisco. After the Hammerhead is retired, another large Fish and Game boat, the 110-foot Broadbill, based in Eureka, would become the department's only long-range patrol craft.

No decision has been made on when the Hammerhead and Marlin will be taken out of operation, Fish and Game officials said.

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