Monday, July 1, 2013

Fishing Regulations in California: How Not to Get Bagged

As its name implies, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (formerly the "Department of Fish & Game") has the responsibility of governing fishing and hunting with the state.  The DFW has the authority to author its own rules and regulations to that end. Those regulations (written, enforced and interpreted by the DFW) carry the full weight of the law. Any violation of the DFW's self-imposed rules can carry hefty penalties, including jail time, fines, loss of hunting / fishing privileges in the future and even forfeiture of property used in the commission of the alleged offense. Laws on the subject are incredibly complicated and, unfortunately, ignorance of those laws is generally not a defense.

So the DFW, an un-elected, executive agency, can make up laws, enforce those laws, and decide for itself how those laws are to be interpreted? Basically, yes. The District Attorney and the courts play a role, but the bulk of hunting and fishing regulations in the State of California are issued by an agency that is virtually insulated from popular pressure. The legislature also contributes to the mish-mash of gaming regulations in the state, resulting in more laws than any one man could possibly wrap his mind around.

If you or a loved one is accused of unlawful hunting or fishing in California, call an attorney with experience in defending against local hunting and fishing violations. Luckily, you've already made the right first step. I'm not only a criminal defense attorney, I'm also an avid fisherman here in Southern California. When I'm not in the courtroom, you can find me ripping lips in Newport Beach, trapping lobster with hoop nets in Mission Bay, or getting my line wet wherever the opportunity presents itself. I've even been hassled by cops for fishing in the water hazards on golf courses.

If you're going to enjoy some of the outdoor sporting activities that the Golden State has to offer, you'd better get familiar with some local regulations before your next fishing trip. I want to share a few tips to help prevent other fishermen from accidentally (or negligently, or intentionally) running afoul of California's complicated Fish & Wildlife Regulations.

The California coastline is divided into 7 "regions". Each region has its own set of regulations to govern the types of fish that can be caught, permissible methods for catching various species (nets, hook & line, traps, spears, bare hands, etc.) closed seasons, minimum sizes, bag limits and other restrictions. This post will focus on rules and regulations within the "South Coast Region", stretching from Point Concepcion to the Mexican border. This region includes the southern portion of Santa Barbara County and all of Ventura County, Los Angeles County, Orange County and San Diego County. The South Coast Region is home of the warmest water in the state, as well as the largest population of fishermen. The warm water and heavy angling pressure has contributed to a unique set of challenges, both for the fisherman and the fish in Southern California. Accordingly, the DFW has imposed specific rules to account for the specific circumstances in the waters between Santa Barbara and Mexico. For example, it is currently unlawful to catch Dungeness Crab in Southern California, but perfectly lawful to do so in Northern, CA. Dungeness Crab season will reopen in the South Coast Region on November 2 of this year. It is also illegal to take Abalone from the South Coast Region year-round.

The South Coast Region is also home to several "Marine Protected Areas", or "MPAs". Each MPA has its own strict rules. It is the angler's responsibility to understand the location and regulations of each protected area.  Here is a link to more information regarding Marine Protected Areas within California. Fishermen love to argue about the wisdom and efficacy of the MLPA. Many commercial anglers and sport fishermen feel that the MPAs were imposed arbitrarily or without due consideration for the local economies that depend on fishing certain waters during certain times of the year. Conservationists, on the other hand, welcome the state action to prevent the decimation of our precious fisheries. Wherever you come down on the MPLA, it's important to pay close attention to the locations and regulations affecting each protected area along the California coastline. Ignore them at your own peril.

Once you've determined your region and checked for MPAs, there are even more rules to govern the various methods by which you will be fishing (from shore, from a boat or diving?) Targeting or taking certain species of fish from boats is prohibited during certain times of year within certain regions. Those same fish may be targeted or taken year-round if you're fishing from the shore or diving.  For example, here in the South Coast Region, it is unlawful to target or take any species of Rockfish, Cabezon or Greenlings from a boat between the dates of 1/1 - 2/28. Shore-based fisherman and divers may target those species year-round. Anglers may take Leopard Sharks from boats within designated bays year-round (including within Newport Bay, Los Alamitos Bay, Mission Bay and San Diego Bay). Anglers may also take Leopard Sharks from shore year-round, but Leopard Shark season is only open to anglers aboard boats outside of the above-designated bays between 3/1 - 12/31.

See how quickly these regulations get complicated? I haven't even gotten into bag limits, size limits and maximum allowable depths for various species. To make things even more confusing, the DFG likes to issue "In-Season Fishing & Regulation Changes", just to keep everyone on their toes. These rule changes can go into effect with as little as 10 days of advance notice to the public.

Species identification is another area that may cause confusion among novice anglers.  Here's a link to a handy illustration that can be used to distinguish among some types of fish that are commonly found near shore in California. Notice how similar many of the rockfish species appear. The bocaccio and chilipepper varieties look nearly identical. The bocaccio, however, has a statewide bag limit of 2 per angler, while the chilipepper rockfish has a bag limit of 10 in the South Coast Region. It's easy to see how an innocent mistake could transform a novice angler into a misdemeanor defendant.

Accidentally violating a DFW regulation can be expensive. Fines for minor violations start at around $500 (including all mandatory state penalty assessments and court fees). The District Attorney may pursue misdemeanor charges over seemingly innocent mistakes (You didn't know that it's illegal to possess a halibut fillet that's less than 19 inches long? You've never filleted a halibut before and you really botched this one? Too bad. That's a misdemeanor conviction on your record). In some cases, prosecutors may even pursue forfeiture actions against violators. They can take your boat, your expensive gear, even the truck that you used to pull the boat if they believe that those items were "instrumentalities" used in the commission of some poaching offenses.

The intricacies of California fishing laws are obviously too complicated to fully explain in one blog post. The short version of the story is this: pay close attention to the local rules and regulations wherever you're fishing. If you're trying out a new stretch of coastline, always check the MPA maps first. You don't want to accidentally wander into a protected area.

If you are accused of poaching or violating any fishing regulations, call an attorney with extensive knowledge of the rules and regulations that govern fishing in Southern California. We offer free fish stories with every consultation. (714) 449-3335. Ask for John.

Keep your lines tight.

Orange County Fishing Lawyer