Commercial Poachers Convicted for Illegal Fishing in Marine Protected Areas

A San Diego County judge recently imposed a $5,000 fine on a Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel (CPFV) operating in a Marine Protected Area (MPA), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced. It was the first implementation of increased commercial poaching fines and penalties under Assembly Bill 2369, authored by San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher. AB 2369, which is specific to illegal activity in California’s MPAs, went into effect in Jan. 2019.

The case was tried in San Diego County Superior Court and prosecuted by San Diego County Deputy District Attorney, Landy Spencer-Daly.

The case was initiated in December 2020 by wildlife officers aboard the CDFW patrol boat Thresher as they patrolled the Swami’s State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA), one of many regions of California’s coast protected by designation as an MPA. Swami’s SMCA is located midway along the coast of San Diego County. Acting on a tip regarding illegal fishing in the SMCA, the officers noticed the CPFV Electra on their radar and their Automatic Identification System inside the northwest corner of the SMCA. As the Thresher approached the Electra, wildlife officers noticed passengers on the boat reeling in lines and keeping fish. After boarding the vessel for inspection, the officers clearly documented commercial passenger fishing vessel activity and cited the vessel’s captain for fishing in the Swami’s SMCA. The case was solidified with further documentation of the vessel’s presence in the MPA via the shore-based radar Marine Monitor vessel tracking system. The Electra is owned by Helgren’s Sportfishing, based out of Oceanside Harbor.

In November, Helgren’s Sportfishing, through owner Joseph Helgren, pleaded guilty to a violation of Fish and Game Code, section 12012.5, resulting in a fine of $5,000 and an order to stay out of Swami’s SMCA for one year.

“The $5,000 minimum fine imposed in the Electra case is the first of its kind since the law was passed,” stated David Bess, CDFW Deputy Director and Chief of the Law Enforcement Division. “We hope the Electra case disposition will send a message that commercial fishing in an MPA will be stopped by wildlife officers and will result in substantial fines.”

The law specifically states that if a CPFV operator fishes or facilitates fishing in an MPA, that operator is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than $5,000 nor more than $40,000, imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, or by both a fine and imprisonment. If a person is convicted of a subsequent violation occurring within 10 years of a prior violation that resulted in a conviction, CDFW may suspend that person’s commercial fishing license. Subsequent violations are also subject to fines of not less than $10,000 nor more than $50,000, imprisonment in the county jail for not more than one year, or by both a fine and imprisonment.