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Fishing in a Marine Protected Area

Michael Peters

Sightlines - January 2017

A Fishing Massacree

Getting busted fishing in an MPA.

In 2014, as part of an international effort to protect sensitive environmental areas from overfishing, California began designating areas along its coastline and channel islands as Marine Protected Areas. I would learn about these MPAs the hard way.

Fish photo by Brian Gatwicke

In order to fully appreciate this story, please take a few minutes and listen to the 1967 folk classic, “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie.... Now that you’re back, 18 minutes and 34 seconds later, you should enjoy this column a little more, especially if you took the time to smoke a little doobie while you listened to the song on the Internet. For all of you too young to remember those days, you missed out.

In June of 2014, we ended our family vacation on Catalina Island with an early morning fishing trip aboard our 20-foot Bertram, Hellcat. We headed east as my daughter Jennifer and two small grandkids huddled together in the bow on their beanbags while their dad Jason and I trolled a couple of Rapalas. We never spotted even a baitfish as we fished the east end, so we decided to try our luck heading west. As we turned, we spotted the California Fish and Wildlife’s 80-foot catamaran Swordfish about a quarter of a mile off our stern. No worries, we had bought fishing licenses just the day before, so we were legal.

About an hour later, we caught and released a large calico off White’s Landing, then continued trolling along the coast towards Long Point. A few hundred yards after rounding the point, we hear the sudden rush of an unmarked 20-foot aluminum RIB speeding towards us, with three men in green fatigues and guns on their hips yelling at us to pull our lines in. As they approached us, they announced that they were boarding our vessel, at which point I endeared them to us with an F-bomb. Momentarily forgetting I wasn’t in Florida, I accused the unmarked officers of being Cuban commandos for all I knew and refused to let them board. If Jason had been able to bring his gun on that trip, he would have surely shot me on the spot, as I cussed in front of his kids and generally made matters worse. 

The Swordfish had followed us ten miles along the coast just to pounce on us as we unwittingly entered an MPA and dispatched their young officers to bust us for our crime. We pleaded ignorance, but were sternly informed: It was our responsibility to know. The island I had grown up on as a child and knew like the back of my hand, suddenly had no-fishing zones. These newly established MPAs were less than three months old and were not marked on the shore, or on any charts, nor were they posted where you bought your fishing license, and being an out-of-state
ignoramus was no excuse. They handed us two tickets and told us we were lucky they didn’t confiscate our fishing gear.

Jason was very upset that he was now an out-of-state fugitive and would never be able to hunt deer again in Georgia, so I agreed to take care of his ticket. The ticket read that the fine must be paid in person, in Avalon, with an additional thousand-dollar punishment for failure to appear in court within 60 days. Holy crap, for a fishing ticket? I lived out of state! 

We never received our ticket in the mail and the 60-day period was closing in. We called the Avalon courthouse only to discover that due to California budget cutbacks, the courthouse was only open one half day per month and they only answered the phone the morning they were open! We did learn that a lawyer could represent us if we couldn’t appear, so we hired an attorney from the mainland and paid his boat fare to the island. He got the tickets reduced to ten dollars each (down from the initial fine of $25), because they had never been filed. Six hundred bucks in
attorney fees and my little crime spree was over. California’s MPAs are definitely safe from me now, but is this really how to handle conservation?

There are an awful lot of angry fisherman out there over these MPAs. Maybe our new president will add MPAs or at least the Avalon courthouse to his hit list. I just don’t like it when Officer Obie locks me up with a bunch of mother rapers and father rapers for the simple crime of fishing with my grandkids.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.