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Wardens' Fast 'Cats' Aim to Net Poachers

OUT THERE

A fleet of new catamarans is Fish and Game's answer to the challenge of patrolling the open ocean.

July 13, 2002|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lt. John Suchil sets a course for the Swordfish, a 58-foot catamaran named after one of the fastest fish in the sea.

"We're going to be powering up," Suchil hollers to his navy-blue-uniformed crew. "So hold onto something."

The vessel springs into action as a submerged hydrofoil lifts its aluminum hulls out of the water. Loosened from the water's grip, the California Department of Fish and Game's newest patrol boat skims across the tops of waves on its way to Anacapa Island.

Until now, Fish and Game wardens have struggled to keep pace with poachers on the open ocean. Their boats were small or slow. Yet their territory is huge, extending 200 miles offshore. So they relied heavily on dockside checks to enforce state and federal laws, rather than counting on catching violators on the high seas.

"Now, if we get a violation in progress, we'll get out there lickety-split," said Suchil, who has captained a patrol boat out of Ventura since 1985. "We're used to driving Volkswagens. This is a Viper. It's fast."

The Swordfish, based in Ventura, is one of five new million-dollar power cats being placed strategically along the California coast. The Thresher is at Dana Point, and others are assigned to Morro Bay, Monterey and Berkeley.

The roll-out of the high-speed boats comes at a key time. Not only are wardens faced with enforcing an ever more complicated array of fishing regulations, now they must patrol vast areas of ocean that are have been made off-limits to fishing.

Federal and state officials earlier this month closed about 80% of the continental shelf to bottom-fishing for rock fish--an emergency action to avoid extinction of bocaccio and other severely depleted species. In September, officials may make the closing indefinite.

Furthermore, the California Fish and Game Commission later this year is scheduled to establish the state's first sizable "marine protected areas." The primary plan being discussed would turn about 25% of the waters in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary into no-fishing zones. It would help all types of sea life recover from decades of excessive harvests.

Law enforcement in such vast ocean wilderness areas is different from citing fishermen for bringing back undersized fish or exceeding quotas. Violations of no-fishing zones can be spotted only from the water, not from the dock.

So Fish and Game officials are developing plans with other law enforcement agencies, as well as using their own twin-engine airplanes, to keep poachers out of these areas. Essential to the strategy are the agile, high-speed cats, which can win the cat-and-mouse game played out with poachers aboard their own swift boats.

On a recent return trip from Catalina, wardens on the Swordfish decided to make a detour to an offshore area set off limits to protect the few remaining cowcod rock fish. They found a recreational charter boat from Redondo Beach's King Harbor fishing in the closed area, said Lt. Jorge Gross.

"We could have cited everyone and seized all their fish," Gross said. But some customers had no idea they were fishing in waters set off-limits. "We cited the skipper for taking them out there and five passengers who were over the limits of rockfish. We issued warnings to 23 other passengers."

With one of the older, slower boats, such a productive side trip would never have been attempted. It would have taken too long to fit into an already busy day.

Wardens are reluctant to disclose the top speed of their new power cats, although documents show they can do as much as 38 knots. That's three times the speed of typical commercial fishing vessels.

It's also twice as fast as the previous patrol boat based in Ventura, a Vietnam War-era river boat.

So Suchil, as well as the fishermen who work these waters, are just getting used to the Swordfish, its sleek lines and twin 600-horsepower diesel engines.

The Swordfish is dull aluminum gray, a color not too different from other Fish and Game patrol boats, which are painted gray to help them blend into a hazy horizon. The coloring has spawned one of the many nicknames for these fish cops: "the gray ghosts."

After the Swordfish arrives at Anacapa Island, Suchil and the crew launch a 15-foot Zodiac Hurricane skiff, using an A-frame hoist designed for rough seas.

Soon Warden Jason Kraus and Lt. Gross motor off in the skiff to do spot checks of fishing boats while Suchil hangs back in the haze, just out of sight.

When the power cat zooms to catch up, the reaction is more than surprise at the big boat's speed and agility.

The reaction is best described as, well, boat envy.

"That thing is hot," yells fisherman Eric Hermann, spotting the Swordfish for the first time. He wants to know all about the boat, its high-tech design, its engines and fancy electronics. "You should have called it the CATillac," Hermann says.

Suchil beams at the compliment. At age 57, he was considering retirement when Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature starting committing more money to enforcement along with new fishing rules and regulations.

"After all these years," he said, "they're giving me a million-dollar yacht and a credit card. This is no time to retire."

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