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He's Caught in Jaws of Strife

June 13, 2003|PETE THOMAS

Abraham Ulloa said that when he went fishing off the Hermosa Beach Pier two weeks ago, he never intended to open so large a can of worms.

Nor could he have envisioned that he would end up as the one being grilled.

But the general contractor from Los Angeles still finds himself scorned by other anglers, and facing a possible $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail, for his dramatic run-in with Jaws Jr. on the morning of May 31.

It was just another lazy day at the beach -- at first.

He arrived at the pier with his kids, as he does once a week. He put a sardine on a hook, cast it into the blue-green water, and waited for a tug on his line he knew might never come.

But it did come, and Ulloa embarked on a two-hour skirmish with what turned out to be a 6-foot, 200-pound great white shark -- a protected species.

Trouble was, nobody on the pier knew for sure what kind of shark it was. And if anybody did know it was a great white, which by law must be cut loose, nobody told the fisherman.

Besides, the general consensus seemed to be that it was better to be safe than sorry -- this being a fairly large shark in an area popular among surfers and swimmers.

Over went the line attached to the big gaffing hook, into the shark's flesh went the gaff, and out of the water came the shark.

It took four people to hoist it over the rail and onto the pier. And before a large and curious crowd that included at least two L.A. County lifeguards, Ulloa posed alongside his bloodied prize looking like a proud conqueror.

Kevin Cody, who had hurried over from his office at the Easy Reader, a Hermosa Beach weekly, snapped photos and one appeared on the cover of its June 5 issue.

And from there the worms jumped out of the can.

Angry fishermen who saw the story railed against Ulloa in a popular Internet chat room, calling his actions irresponsible, imploring one another to turn him in through the Department of Fish and Game's anti-poaching CalTip hotline.

"This guy should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," read one complaint. "Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Just another feather for the tree huggers to put in their bonnets on how recreational fishermen abuse our resources."

The DFG, prompted by the outcry, confiscated the shark's jaws and fins, from which a positive identification was made on Monday. With that, warden Rebecca Hartman announced that she would file misdemeanor charges against Ulloa "probably within a week or two."

"Our laws are set up for the protection of the animals, not for us," Hartman said. "If he was unsure what kind of shark it was, he should have let it go."

Reached by phone, Ulloa, 45, said he was dumbstruck. He was quick to point out that he usually abides by the rules, and rattled off the correct size limits of the types of fish he normally targets: halibut, 22 inches; calico bass, 12 inches; barracuda, 28 inches.

"But I am not an expert on sharks," he said. "I cannot tell the difference between a great white and a mako. It took a marine biologist with an education and more than 20 years of experience to come to that conclusion."

There had been speculation that the shark was a mako, and at so young an age -- the specimen in question was between 1 and 2 years old -- it's difficult to tell the difference without close inspection.

Makos are not protected and can be legally fished. Ulloa caught a small one from the same pier in September.

Chris Lowe, a shark researcher and professor at Long Beach State, made the positive ID on Ulloa's latest big catch.

He said that although nobody knows how many white sharks are in the ocean, it is generally agreed that their numbers have decreased substantially over the years because of overfishing and other factors. They don't reach sexual maturity for at least 10 years, after which they give birth to a maximum of two pups, and they pup only once every two years.

Thus, an apex predator valuable to the overall health of the marine ecosystem is highly vulnerable and is now protected not only in this state and most federal waters, but in parts of South Africa and Australia.

In Southern California, as Ulloa proved, there are great whites close to shore, but this should not be reason for alarm. Coastal waters are a nursery ground for pups and juveniles, who prey on small bottom fish and pose no real threat to swimmers or surfers.

Lowe said these young sharks are so timid that "a sea lion would probably scare one away."

He added that by the time the sharks make the transition from fish-eaters to mammal-eaters they have migrated well offshore. As adults, they tend to feed near island seal and sea lion rookeries. It is not known how close to shore adult white sharks come during the spring pupping season.

As for Ulloa, who awaits the formal pressing of charges, he said he would continue to make his weekend trips to the pier.

Asked what he'd do if he caught another large shark, he laughed and said, "I guess I'll make it disappear."

Presumably, that means he'll cut the line.

Seabass Frenzy

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