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Jury: Diver's Arguments Fall Short : Fishing: Vince Puleo is convicted of harvesting undersized red sea urchins, despite his 'shrinkage defense.'

September 05, 1993|GORDON DILLOW | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MALIBU — A Malibu Municipal Court jury decided last week that sea urchins don't shrink--or at least they didn't shrink enough to acquit a sea urchin diver charged with harvesting undersized red sea urchins.

In a case that could have had significant impact on one of California's most important fishing industries, veteran sea urchin diver Vince Puleo, 50, of Ventura had argued that between the time he picked the sea urchins from the ocean and the time they were measured by Fish and Game wardens at Ventura Harbor, some of the urchins had shrunk--a contention supported by an expert defense witness.

As Puleo explained in an interview before the trial, "Hey, urchins are like anything else. When something dies, it shrinks. When you die, you're gonna shrink. When an urchin dies, it's gonna shrink."

Joseph LeMay, a marine biologist with Aquatic Testing Laboratories in Ventura, testified that the urchins he tested shrank an average of 1/29 of an inch after 16 hours of exposure to air and sunlight.

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But the jurors didn't buy the so-called "shrinkage defense." After just three hours of deliberations, they voted Thursday to convict Puleo.

"The shrinkage defense was so slight that it had no impact at all," jury foreman Charles Pond, an Agoura Hills resident, said after the verdict.

Pond added, however, that the jury agreed with at least one of Puleo's arguments in the case--that the law regarding sea urchin harvesting is somewhat vague.

"We were not happy with the way the law reads," Pond said, "but there was nothing we could do about that."

The jury also convicted Christopher Michalak, who worked for Puleo as a diver, of possessing undersized sea urchins, but it acquitted another of Puleo's divers, Michael Parish, of the same charge, largely on the grounds that Parish was unwittingly using a defective gauge to measure the urchins before harvesting.

State law prohibits Southern California urchin divers from possessing more than 30 urchins of fewer than 3.25 inches in diameter--not including the spines--in any one load. Game wardens testified in the trial that when Puleo brought his boat, Sea Breeze II, into the dock at Ventura Harbor on Dec. 15, 1992, he had 221 undersized or "short" urchins in his load. The wardens said some of the urchins were as much as an inch short--a contention hotly disputed by Puleo.

"He (the warden) must have been dreaming," Puleo testified. "There were no short urchins in it."

Sea urchins are ball-shaped, spine-covered bottom feeders that belong to the same marine animal group as starfish and sand dollars. Ironically, until about 20 years ago, California sea urchins were regarded as pests because they often overgrazed undersea kelp beds, to the point where they sometimes were poisoned or smashed with hammers in vast numbers in order to save the kelp.

But in the early 1970s California divers began harvesting sea urchins for sale in Japan, where "uni" or sea urchin "roe"--a market euphemism for sea urchin gonads--is considered a sushi-style delicacy. The gonads are removed at processing plants in California, packed in boxes and air-shipped to Japan, where "uni" sells for about $60 per pound wholesale. Divers in California receive anywhere from 50 cents to $1 per pound for urchins, depending on market conditions.

According to jury foreman Pond, none of the eight women and four men on the Malibu jury had ever eaten sea urchin roe. In fact, when a dead sea urchin was displayed to the jury, several jurors seemed repelled at the sight. A court clerk, meanwhile, balked when she was asked to stick an exhibit sticker on the spiny corpse.

Sea urchin harvests in California have skyrocketed over the past two decades. In 1971, only 200 pounds of sea urchins were "landed" in California; in 1988, however, 52 million pounds were landed, almost all of it going to the Japanese market.

During the past few years, concerns about overfishing of sea urchins has resulted in new size limits and closed fishing periods. It has also led to efforts to reduce the number of licensed divers--there are about 500 now--and increased enforcement of urchin regulations. Last year, according to Department of Fish and Game officials, 16 citations were issued for urchin violations in Southern California, four times as many as three years ago.

In the past, urchin divers who were cited often simply pleaded no contest to the charges, paid a fine and went back to their fishing. But Fish and Game officials are now planning to initiate license suspension or revocation proceedings against divers convicted of violations.

"There's a lot of people out there waiting for licenses," said Steve Capps, a Fish and Game department spokesman. "So why not weed out the bad ones and make room for the good ones?"

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