COAST CITIES — Two years after the debut of new and expanded marine protected areas, wardens are placing a greater emphasis on citations for illegal activity in the reserves.
During the first year of the protected areas, wardens were more reluctant to issue fines for violations in the new reserves — areas that limit or ban fishing — to allow fishermen to become familiar with the boundaries.
Additionally, outreach campaigns informed the general public about the reserves, said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman with the California Fish and Wildlife Department. Awareness levels are higher, prompting the shift to enforcement, he said.
“As we move forward, the wardens will continue to write appropriate citations and forward them to the courts,” Hughan said. “I have been on several patrols with wardens where they watch the anglers and boats that get close to the line and have noticed they pretty much know exactly where the marine protected area lines are.”
Preliminary data from the Fish and Wildlife Department reflect the focus on enforcement. In 2012, wardens gave six misdemeanor tickets for illegally fishing in county marine protected areas.
Misdemeanors carry up to a $1,000 fine, with the possibility of a maximum of six months in jail.
In 2013, there were 12 misdemeanors. Five less severe fines — the equivalent of a traffic ticket — were handed out. Most violations were issued in response to illegal fishing in La Jolla’s southern reserve.
Although enforcement is becoming more common, wardens don’t always turn to citations.
There were 73 warnings for fishing in the reserves last year. If illegal angling isn’t blatant, wardens have discretion over whether to issue citations, Hughan said.
Compared to other parts of the state, Hughan said there haven’t been large-scale poaching busts in San Diego in the past two years.
Orange County had several significant violations in that time period. For instance, in 2012 a man was caught poaching 47 lobsters, resulting in a seven-day jail sentence and a $20,000 fine.
Seventy-two Fish and Wildlife wardens in Southern California patrol the reserves and other areas. Additionally, a separate 10-member team of wardens, who are primarily dedicated to fighting oil spills, spends some time monitoring the protected areas.
“The wardens have always patrolled the oceans for violations,” Hughan said. “The (reserves) added another set of tools the wardens have to enforce.”
He noted the number of wardens in Southern California has remained steady for more than five years.
Two years ago, fishermen raised concerns about poaching, because wardens had their hands full patrolling the new and expanded reserves.
Hughan said poaching in reserves currently seems to be less of an issue across the state.
One likely reason, he said, is that the Department of Fish and Wildlife has worked diligently over the past year to publicize poaching cases, deterring those who might consider illegally taking marine life from the protected areas.
“We stepped up our Facebook, Twitter and media efforts to remind people of the law,” Hughan said.
And Hughan said more fishermen are passing along poaching leads through a tip line (888-334-2258).
“Fishermen are the biggest conservationists out there,” Hughan said. “They want to protect the resource and are quick to report illegal takes.”
Reserves aim to bolster fish in the marine areas. That way, replenished stock will spill over into nearby, unprotected areas.
While enforcement is playing a greater role, Hughan said educating the public remains important — a goal several nonprofits have helped the Fish and Wildlife Department with.
Surfrider installed signs and plaques denoting the boundaries (a cell phone app marking the reserves’ borders can be found at dfg.ca.gov.)
San Diego Coastkeeper’s MPA Watch is seeking volunteers to regularly walk the reserves and record both permitted and forbidden activity.
In the Swami’s reserve, for instance, most fishing is prohibited, with the exception of spearfishing for barracuda, yellowtail, white seabass and bonito.
“We want to know how people interact with the reserves, whether tidepooling or sunbathing or collecting shells,” said Kristin Kuhl, community engagement coordinator with San Diego Coastkeeper.
Information gleaned from monitoring the marine areas will be logged into a database via a smartphone app.
When compared with baseline data, San Diego Coastkeeper will have recommendations for improving the reserves when policy makers review them in five years.
For example, if volunteers repeatedly see the public fishing from reserves where angling is banned, San Diego Coastkeeper might recommend additional signs listing what’s allowed in the marine area, Kuhl said.
Kuhl said MPA Watch is currently focused on the Swami’s and south La Jolla reserve. However, Coastkeeper would like to expand the program to include protected areas throughout San Diego (for those interested in volunteering, visit sdcoastkeeper.org for information about training on Feb. 8 for MPA Watch.)
“This is the beginning — we want to look at trends over time in the marine protected areas,” Kuhl said.