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Authorities' Catch of the Day

Fish and Game officials arrest two men who they say caught 110 lobsters off Dana Point that were too small to be kept legally.

November 21, 2002|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The game wardens watched the two fishermen for hours as they plucked one lobster after another from the traps and tossed them into their boat bobbing off the coast of Dana Point.

When confronted back at port, state Fish and Game agents said, the fishermen told them not to bother measuring their catch because the men knew the 100 or so lobsters they snared were too small.

For those who patrol the waters for lobster rustlers, Monday's bust was significant.

The seizure was one of the largest in a decade in Southern California and underscored the importance Fish and Game officials put on protecting the native crustacean, whose numbers dropped sharply in the 1970s when poaching was at a peak.

The case was also unusual because the skipper of the boat has a lobster permit, making him one of only 225 fishermen in the state granted the lifelong right to harvest legal-size lobsters. Over the years, as the lobster population slowly climbed, poachers--not the licensed lobster fishermen--have been viewed as the leading threat to the California spiny lobster.

"This was shocking," Fish and Game Lt. Chris Graff said. "Usually we get poachers who have no licenses of any kind, and here the guy's a commercial fisherman. If he wanted to plan any kind of career in fishing, he just shot himself in the foot."

If found guilty, Harvey Gonzalez, 22, of San Juan Capistrano and his crew member, Roddy Giacomini, 25, of Vista, could each face a maximum $110,000 fine, prison time, the loss of their commercial fishing and lobster permits and the seizure of their boat.

Neither could be reached for comment.

Authorities say the men were caught with 110 baby lobsters, all too small for legal harvesting.

The estimated value of the catch was roughly $1,000.

California lobsters sell for as much as $12 a pound.

Game wardens said the fishermen told them they did not intend to sell the lobsters on the black market.

Fish and Game agents periodically check restaurants and fish markets, making sure the lobsters are of a legal size.

More often, game wardens concentrate on commercial fishing vessels such as gill netters and hook-and-line fishermen, not those working the lobster pots.

But in this case, the wardens had received a tip and had had the two men under surveillance for days.

Wardens watched them from the deck of the Thresher, one of three Fish and Game boats patrolling the ocean from the Mexican border to Ventura to 200 miles offshore, Graff said.

As a rule, officials said, licensed lobster fishermen toss back about five short lobsters for every legal one they keep. But as the warden watched the two men Monday, they threw back only five lobsters during their lengthy fishing session, officials said.

After hauling in the last trap, Gonzalez allegedly maneuvered his boat quickly back to dock where the catch was shifted to a car. The men were stopped leaving the dock by game wardens, who said that of the 116 lobsters stowed in the car, only six were of legal size. Of the seized lobsters, authorities said, all but four -- kept for evidence -- were returned to the ocean.

When word spread of the alleged illegal catch, it angered other lobster fishermen who make their livelihood pulling up hundreds of traps during a season that lasts from the first week in October until March 15.

"I hope they lose their permit," said John Guth, president of the California Lobster and Trap Fishermen's Assn.

Diana Rainforth, one of the few women in the state licensed to hunt for lobster, said the incident angered her.

Lobster harvesting has been slow lately, she said. On Wednesday, for instance, out of 80 lobster traps she tends off the San Onofre nuclear power plant, she pulled in 30 lobsters, not enough to warrant meeting up with a buyer.

Lobster fishermen say they average about $60,000 during the six-month season. In good years, when large storms stir up the bottom, they can earn $90,000 or more.

But lately the weather has been mild and the lobster fishing has been slow, said Mark Larkins, another fisherman at Dana Point.

To be legal, lobsters must measure at least 3 1/4 inches from the eye socket to the rear edge of their shell. It takes seven to 11 years for lobsters to reach legal size.

This wasn't the first arrest of the lobster season. A diver who was apprehended a month ago near Crystal Cove. He was caught with about 40 lobsters he had poached from commercial lobster traps.

In the 1970s, lobsters were on the decline, but the state adopted regulations requiring fishermen to install escape ports in traps so undersized lobsters could escape before traps were pulled. It helped reverse the trend and now annual lobster catches have grown from a low of 200,000 pounds to an average of 400,000 pounds.

Commercial fishermen enter a lottery to get a lobster permit. But once issued, "it's for life," Graff said, "that is until the fisherman dies or quits the business," or has it stripped for violations.

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