The captains of two fishing boats were convicted Tuesday of using illegal fishing nets off San Nicolas Island, 70 miles off the Ventura County Coast.
But the captains and two crew members were acquitted of another charge that they were fishing illegally in waters protected for endangered California sea otters.
The four men were arrested in October by wardens of the state Department of Fish and Game, who said the men were using gill nets in waters less than 20 fathoms deep. Under state law, it is illegal to use gill nets at that depth off San Nicolas because it is a protected area for the endangered otters.
The law states that the fishing prohibition would take effect only when a sea otter colony was introduced on the island.
Sea otters have been on San Nicolas since 1987 when federal wildlife biologists moved a group of the animals there as part of an effort to save the species, which biologists say is threatened with extinction.
But no evidence of their presence on the island was presented at the trial.
After Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven C. Phillips rested his case in the non-jury trial, Ventura County Municipal Judge Edward F. Brodie acquitted the men. Brodie agreed with one of the defense attorneys, Timothy J. Quinn, who said the prosecutor had neglected to show that sea otters have been introduced on San Nicolas.
"I screwed up, I guess," Phillips said afterward, adding that provisions of the law seemed to conflict on when it would take effect. He said it would have been a simple matter to have a game warden testify to their existence on San Nicolas.
The illegal-depth allegation was the only charge against the two crew members--Hoyan Ho, 41, of Rosemead and Tuat Le, 57, of Long Beach. One of the captains, Meo Doan, 39, of Oxnard, pleaded guilty to a charge of fishing with nets that were not marked with ownership, as required by law. He was placed on two years probation and fined $250.
Brodie convicted the other captain--Tho Van Nguyen, 50, of Westminster--on charges of using an unmarked net and obstructing an officer. He was sentenced to 14 days in jail and three years probation.
The captains also forfeited their catch, which included halibut and sharks but no sea otters. In October, wildlife officials reported that, of 139 sea otters that have been relocated to the island, only about 15 remain. The rest have either returned to the main colony in Monterey, died or disappeared.