A poster on the wall of a La Jolla Shores dive shop shows pictures of many species a scuba diver is likely to encounter in the waters off La Jolla. In the middle, dwarfing the others, is a giant sea bass or black sea bass.
Swimmers, divers and other water recreationists are less likely to view this animal in La Jolla’s waters, however, after a 171-pound giant sea bass was speared in La Jolla’s marine park April 24.
Three men were stopped by San Diego lifeguards as they dragged the fish into their boat. One of the three, Omid Adhami, was arrested and was later released on bail. The City Attorney’s office said if found guilty, Adhami faces a possible sentence of six months in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Shooting a black sea bass anywhere off the coast of California is illegal. Adding to the severity of this crime, the fish was shot inside the borders of the marine park, a protected area in which no fishing of any kind is allowed.
Lifeguard Lt. Rick Wurtz said all boaters should be aware of the ecological reserve’s boundaries.
“The area is clearly marked with those very large, yellow ecological reserve buoys,” said Wurtz. “These guys came out via boat. ... People who operate and work on boats use navigation charts and that area, for any navigation chart that exists anywhere that deals directly with La Jolla, the game reserve is clearly posted.”
This particular bass was apparently well-known by the community’s divers and swimmers, many of whom are disgusted and angry at the shooting of a rare and docile fish.
“I was sick,” said Mary Lynne Price, a La Jolla diver and underwater videographer, “just sick and outraged.”
Price’s sentiments were echoed throughout the community’s population of scuba divers, free divers and swimmers. Mixed in with the anger, however, there was also frustration and disappointment.
“You shake your head,” said Eddie Kisfaludy, a research technician at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who dives in La Jolla every day. “You look down and you think, ‘How can someone go into a protected area and spear a protected fish with what is considered a fair amount of information?’ We have signs and buoys saying that this is a protected area, and we want to preserve the resources so that everybody can enjoy them.”
Warden Eric Fleet of the California Department of Fish and Game speculated that Adhami and his friends were poachers out to bag themselves a trophy catch. He said that any spear-fisherman with even basic knowledge should know is is an endangered species. Fleet dismissed Adhami’s excuse at the time that he panicked and shot the fish in self-defense.
“Anybody who has dove any length of time, has any experience in diving, there are certain types of fish that are just not threatening. ...” said Fleet. “It’s not a threatening fish, in any way, shape or form.”
Kisfaludy used an analogy to put the shooting in context.
“If I’m walking along on a prairie somewhere,” he said, “and all I have around me are little squirrels and little gophers and things like that, and all of a sudden I stumble upon a cow. You know, it’s something big. It’s a large animal, but it’s a very slow mover. It doesn’t have horns. It’s not a bull, it’s a cow.”
Kathryn Lange, a prosecutor with the City Attorney’s office, said Adhami could possibly face incarceration if convicted. She said many factors will be taken into account in the case, such as the diver’s experience and criminal history. In addition to fines and a possible six months in prison, a judge could levy other crime-specific punishments.
“Maybe we will ask that he forfeit his dive gear,” she said. “Maybe we will ask that he not be permitted back into the ecological reserve. There are all kinds of things.”
According to Kisfaludy, black sea bass have declined in numbers seriously since the turn of the century. He said commercial landings of the fish peaked in 1932 and the fish became protected in 1981. Since then, he said their numbers have seen a slight upturn, but they remain a rare and endangered species. Kisfaludy said that judging by the size and weight of the fish, it was probably about 15 years old.
Fleet said if Adhami is found guilty, he hopes they make an example of him. He had a message for would-be poachers thinking of coming to La Jolla.
“You’re going to get caught,” said Fleet. “We’re watching you. ... There’s always going to be somebody looking. And if you think you’re set being three miles off the coastline, you’re not set there either, because you don’t know when or where we’re going to be.”