Waters off San Diego and south La Jolla prime target for lobster poaching

Staring out at the glistening blue water from any beach in Bird Rock or WindanSea, you’d never know. But according to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, those waters are prime territory for lobster poachers and are, in fact, the most prolific poaching areas in San Diego.

The targeted area is called the South La Jolla State Marine Reserve, and it runs from Palomar Avenue to Diamond Street in Pacific Beach and out about a mile. It’s designated as a “marine protected area,” or MPA — one of 11 in San Diego County (La Jolla has four).

The South La Jolla State Marine Reserve is a full-closure reserve, meaning you can’t take anything out of the water, but you can fully access the area. But the rules for each MPA vary — some have “limited take,” which means you can use a hook and line to catch fish, others allow only spearfishing, and still others allow some small-scale commercial fishing.

According to Wildcoast Conservation Director Zachary Popper, therein lies part of the problem. “It makes it challenging to get the word out that these places are there and what the rules are for each one,” he told La Jolla Light.

Popper explained that the MPAs, established in 2012, were designed to function as a network, given the unique quality of each area. “It’s not just throwing shapes at a map. There’s a scientific process to develop this. So a threat to one MPA is really a threat to the entire network,” he said.

Why all the poaching now?

Zach speculates that because it’s a protected area, the lobster population has increased dramatically since 2012, so there’s a lot of money to be made catching them.

Oddly enough, most lobster poaching takes place on the weekends — the most popular time to be out on the water.

“It’s safety in numbers,” Popper opined. “They might not know that it’s an MPA, but they see boats inside the MPA and so they’ll go, too. Some weekends, wildlife officers have witnessed as many as 40 violations at one time in the South La Jolla State Reserve.”

However, some poachers are being caught. Two recent examples this year: The sportfishing boat, Pacific Star had its licensed suspended for five years in February for 18 poaching-related violations after a four-year investigation.

Another lobster poacher was prosecuted in July for taking more than a dozen lobsters out of the water off Bird Rock after four previous violations. The violater spent 45 days in jail, was fined $1,000, and was ordered to forfeit his fishing gear and stay away from the marine reserve while on three years’ probation.

Wildcoast representatives met with City Attorney Mara Elliott last year, and she is now supporting its efforts instead of tossing cases aside, Popper pointed out, adding: “We explained that it’s not so much a wildlife crime. It’s more of a theft against all San Diegans, because it’s a shared resource that is protected through these MPAs that we can all benefit from.

“The beauty of having abundant wildlife in all these places also has a spillover benefit. These lobsters grow and then they move out of the MPA, and they spill over to areas around it, where it’s totally permissible to fish, if you have a fishing license and a boat of appropriate size. So it’s framing a bigger picture that all of us suffer because this is a theft of our resources, not just a crime against a lobster.”

Signs are posted at several ocean-access sites along the coast of La Jolla and PB, identifying those waters as MPAs and outlining the rules. Look for 10-15 more signs to be installed at ocean-access points in La Jolla in the next several weeks.

In August, Gov. Brown signed a new law cracking down on illegal ocean poaching (proposed by California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher from San Diego) that will take effect in January 2019. The new law is aimed at commercial fishing operators who poach in MPAs.

“These greedy poachers have done an enormous amount of damage, showing that the current penalties are nominal to their bottom line and they don’t seem to work,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “I’m pretty sure this new law’s threat of a hefty fine will get their attention.” The new legislation increases fines from $100-$1,000 to $5,000-$40,000.

Right now, La Jollans, trained volunteers, and San Diego City lifeguards are watching the waters for suspicious signs of poaching. According to Popper: “They’ve been great eyes on the water ... and lifeguards have done some ticketing ... but we’re going to be working much more closely together moving forward.”

TO REPORT POACHING: Citizens can anonymously report suspected incidents of poaching to CalTIP, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s confidential witness program at (888) 334-2258. Tips can also be sent via text to 847411 by texting “CALTIP” followed by a space and the message.