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January 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 40, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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California Puts the “Rub” on a Shady Fish Collector

from the January, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

You've heard about fishermen in Southeast Asia using dynamite to blast fish from their rocky hiding places. Closer to home, divers working for aquarium collectors use something more subtle but just as illicit to collect prey. Marine officials are trying to "rub out" this illegal act, as this underwater apprehension by officers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife shows.

On the afternoon of November 13, the officers were patrolling Emerald Bay, on the northeast coast of Catalina Island, and saw a large recreational sailboat anchored in the bay, with commercial fishing license numbers painted on the stern. Officers boarded the boat and found a man sportfishing. The angler told the officers that his partner was diving. The suspicious officers donned their dive gear, entered the 62-degree water and saw a diver squirting a liquid from a bottle into cracks of rocks. The liquid, determined to be rubbing alcohol, was forcing blue-banded gobies into the open water, where the man then caught the small fish with an aquarium fish net and immediately put them in a small plastic receptacle attached to his dive gear. A warden used a mask and snorkel from just below the water's surface to watch the diver squirt the bottle twice. He then dove down, showed the diver his identification and directed the diver to come to the surface. Before ascending, the diver left one of his squirt bottles on the rocks and attempted to drop a small mesh bag containing another squirt bottle. The warden retrieved both squirt bottles and the mesh bag.

Once on the sailboat, the suspect diver, a 46-year-old from Ventura County, acted clueless, telling the officers he was a licensed marine aquaria collector and his buyers were paying him $10 per fish. He said he didn't know it's illegal to use rubbing alcohol to catch the small fish, or that it's illegal to do aquarium collecting on the island. But what a collection he had -- 63 gobies in the plastic receptacle attached to his gear. During the interview, officers saw another plastic sealed container underneath the boat, which held an additional 109 fish.

The man's dive gear was seized, he was cited for two Fish and Game code violations, and charges will be filed with the Los Angeles County District Attorney. The fish were counted, photographed and returned to the sea.

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