Poaching can pay off for good guys

The economy's problems are affecting many things beyond home foreclosures and unemployment. Yacht sales may be down, but across the country fishing licenses are up 11 percent for the first quarter of 2009.

In California, in a normal year 1,700,000 Californians buy fishing licenses  third in the nation after Florida and Texas. This year California could sell two million fishing licenses, and countless thousands more fish from public piers where no licenses are required. This figure is even more exceptional as for the second year in a row the salmon season is virtually shut down throughout the state.

One counterbalance to the salmon disaster is that there is an unusually good run of halibut in San Francisco Bay. These are not the monster Pacific halibut that can run 300-plus pounds in Alaska. A 20-pound California halibut, Paralichthys californicus, is a definite photo op. The all-tackle state record is 58 pounds, 9 ounces. Nonetheless, these smaller guys are awfully good eating, and they are abundant.

More people are fishing today, but not all of them are good guys. The ugly side of a tough economy is an exponential growth in poaching. This is true across the nation and especially true for California, which has the worst wardens per capita in the U.S.  one game warden for every 180,000 Californians.

"We're seeing a tremendous increase in the amount of poaching for profit," says DFG Law Enforcement Chief Nancy Foley. "It's across the board, from reptiles and amphibians to abalone, bear, deer. Every wildlife species in the state is being illegally commercialized."

Chief Foley isn't kidding. In 2001, when California had more game wardens, 7,571 citations were issued. In 2008, California Fish and Game Wardens issued 14,543 citations for a variety of wildlife law offenses, and the rate for 2009 continues.

Some recent examples of the nefarious characters the wardens are nailing:

Limpets are univalve mollusks about the size of a silver dollar that can be found on rocks in the tidal zone. The daily limit is 35; more than enough for some tasty chowder for a family. Warden Todd Tognazzini tells me that recently he nabbed three guys who had 1500 limpets.

Red Abalone are the only legal species of abalone in California, and they can only be harvested north of the Golden Gate. Nonetheless, wardens recently nailed two men at a state park near Monterey (way south of the legal abalone fishing area) with 51 black abalone.

The bag limit of red abalone is three per day at least seven inches or greater across, and 24 per season, taken only by free diving or rock picking. When you get one legal ab, you have to tag it, and punch out a space on a card.

Working the north coast shoreline during a recent four-day stretch of low tides, the Special Operations Unit wardens nailed 11 suspects who were in possession of 166 red abalone. Considering that abs go for up to $100 each on the black market, this could have been a lucrative haul. Those gentlemen went to jail on felony conspiracy charges.

SOU Chief Kathy Ponting says that often people who poach abalone for sale are either trying to make some serious money, or support their drug habit. Heroin addicts seem to be especially drawn to abalone poaching.

During the same four-day period, 131 other abalone pickers were given citations for overlimits or taking abalone that were too small.

Poaching of all kinds is up. All across North America, bear poaching for gall bladders that can be sold on the black market for Oriental medicine, is skyrocketing.

Tales of deer poaching nation-wide also seem to be climbing. In Australia, they are having problems with street gangs getting into poaching. We have the same problem in California  street gangs catching sturgeon and selling the roe to the Russian mob to make caviar.

Africa is experiencing growing poaching for elephant tusks and rhino horns.

Then let's not forget about marijuana gardens on public lands from the Appalachians to Hawaii. Here again, California seems to be the epicenter. In 2008, 2.9 million marijuana plants were seized as part of the state's interagency Campaign Against Marijuana Production (CAMP) program. 70 percent of the plants seized were grown on public land. That's a dramatic increase from the 1.1 million pot plants seized in California in 2005. Each plant can be worth 4,000-5,000 dollars. Warden Lt. John Nores tells me this year they are finding as many or more pot gardens this year.

What to do about poachers

You can sit back and grouse about the poaching and destruction of our wildlands, or do something about it. Two suggestions:

1) Use poaching and pollution hotlines  Every state has a hotline to report poaching and polluting. In California, it's Cal-Tip.
Nearly all of the state hotlines offer rewards up to $1000, sometimes more, for tips that lead to arrests and convictions; and you can remain anonymous. You want to make some extra cash, rat on a rat.

2) Restore respect for game wardens  There are only about 7,100 game wardens in North America. "The Thin Green Line" enforces the widest range of law of any state police officer, normally work alone in remote area, and their work is as dangerous as being a DEA agent, especially when they encounter marijuana gardens in the woods, which increasingly are being run by international drug cartels. Most people don't have a clue about what wardens actually do. That mystery contributes to low funding, low recruitment and less support.

If you belong to a group, invite a game warden to come speak to them. It will be an eye-opener.

Each outdoor recreationist needs to find their own way to help support game wardens. For me, at the request of the California wardens, over the last two years I've produced a feature-length documentary, "Endangered Species: California Fish and Game Wardens." We finished in January. It's 66-minutes long and narrated by Jameson Parker (Simon and Simon). Yes, you can buy copies online. Part of the profits support the wardens.

In late February, the wardens descended on Sacramento to give copies of the DVD to every member of the Senate and Assembly. Their mission was made even more important as a few days before half of the wardens had received layoff notices. I am happy to say that three weeks after the lawmakers got the documentary, the layoff was cancelled. I like to think the documentary may have helped sway some people.

We've gotten some nice compliments for the documentary and distribution is developing, but one of the nicest pieces of feedback came recently from Sacramento.

It seems that DFG just hired a new Public Information Officer. Like most of us, she did not know much about game wardens. So, the wardens gave her a DVD copy of the documentary. Her family watched it that night, including her five year-old son.

The little boy liked it so much that he watched the DVD several times and said that he wanted to be a game warden when he grows up.

The following weekend, the PIO and her son visited an oriental market in San Francisco. Suddenly, the little boy started screaming! The PIO quickly took her son outside and asked him, "What is wrong?" He explained that he saw some deer antlers on display with velvet on them and he had seen something in the documentary about such antlers being illegal.

The PIO checked with the wardens. Apparently the boy was right. It was illegal.

He will get a mini-warden badge and maybe even a Cal-Tip reward.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.