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May 2004 Vol. 19, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Squid Fishermen’s Bombs Rattle Night Divers

from the May, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

California scuba divers are upset with commercial squid fishermen, accusing them of jeopardizing night divers by detonating small explosives to protect their catch from seals and sea lions. The seal bombs endanger the divers and ruin diving after dark, divers say.

"It sounded like elephants doing cannon balls over our heads," said San Diego diver Peter Ajtai, who said he was startled by the firecracker-like noisemakers while diving with two buddies off La Jolla. "There were two explosions where we could actually feel the percussion inside our bodies," he said. "It was kind of scary."

Federal law allows fishermen to use seal bombs to ward off sea lions and harbor seals. Fishermen say the nonlethal explosives spare the animals from death or injuries caused by entanglement in their nets. Sonke Mastrup, of the U.S. Fish and Game Department's Wildlife and Inland Fisheries Division, was night diving in Monterey when he was rocked by percussive sound waves from seal bombs tossed into the water by squid fishermen. "It is quite a shock," he said.

Experiences range from those who have been startled by the explosions to terrifying percussions from seal bombs detonated within a few feet of a diver, said divemaster John H. Moore of San Diego. While the seal bombs aren't powerful enough to blow off a diver's finger, the percussive sound waves could damage eardrums or sinuses, Moore said.

Kristine Barksy, a U.S. Fish and Game Department biologist, said sound waves are amplified under water and the percussion from seal bombs can be disorienting to an unsuspecting diver. "You're down at night. It's all dark and then all of a sudden -- BOOM!" she said. "It's very loud, even if you're not close."

Operating at night, one boat attracts squid to the surface by using strong lights. Then the purse seiner drops a round haul net around the shoal. Boat operator Donald Brockman said he spends close to $4,000 a year on seal bombs, which cost about 50 cents apiece, are made with a waterproof fuse, and are filled with sand. Once, he accidentally detonated one in his hand. The only damage was a broken finger, he said. "It doesn't hurt the seals, it just spooks them," he said. "It makes them jump out of the net so they don't get tangled." "They're not as effective as they used to be," he added. "Seals are very smart animals."

Scuba divers would be wise to keep their distance when the squid fleet is working because the fishermen can't tell whether divers are in the water at night, Brockman said.

Orlando Amoroso, president of the Southern California Commercial Fishing Vessel Association, said he too was unaware of the conflict between night divers and the squid fleet. "I frankly didn't know that people dived at night," he said. "But I'm very interested in solving the problem, if there is one."

Terry Rodgers, Copley News Service

P.S. This reminds us of an incident that occurred in May 1998. A couple of Italian fishermen found a hand grenade and decided to use it to enhance their catch by stunning fish in the Mediterranean. They spotted bubbles that they thought disclosed a school of fish. So one of the guys pulled the pin and lobbed in the grenade. Unfortunately, the bubbles were exhaust from diver Teodoro Zuccaro's regulator, and the blast killed him. His dive partner was some distance away and was unharmed. The Associated Press reported that the fishermen were apprehended and charged with manslaughter. They complained there was no diver flag on the surface to indicate divers below.

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