When a California Department of Fish and Wildlife officer patrolling off the coast of Santa Catalina Island on Nov. 13 peered down through the clear water, he witnessed something he'd never seen before.
A scuba diver was squirting a liquid into rock crevices and then collecting the little orange, blue-stripped fish that emerged, according to the department.
After watching the diver repeat the process, the warden, equipped with only a mask and snorkel, descended, flashed his identification and ordered the diver to the surface.
The liquid turned out to be rubbing alcohol, which the department says the diver was using to drive bluebanded gobies into open water off the island's northeast coast.
"And then he would just scoop them up. How fair is that?" said department spokesman Andrew Hughan.
Identified as a 46-year-old Ventura County man, the diver was cited for two misdemeanor violations of the state Fish and Game Code: Use of a chemical while collecting marine aquaria and unlawful take of marine aquaria off Catalina Island.
Hughan said the diver informed wardens he was a licensed collector of aquarium fish, was paid $10 a fish by buyers and did not know that using a chemical or collecting off Catalina was illegal.
Although divers with permits can capture fish in ocean waters to sell to pet shops, the practice is banned around Catalina to protect local resources.
Wardens seized the diver's scuba gear, and he will have to appear in court. "He's not going to jail, but we're hoping for a significant fine," Hughan said.
The gobies, 172 of them and apparently unharmed, were returned to the sea.