That Sinking Feeling : Channel Islands Park Rangers Lose Main Rescue Boat to Budget Cuts


As Chief Ranger Jack Fitzgerald sees it, his mission includes halting poachers from illegally prying abalone off coastal rocks in Channel Islands National Park.

His rangers keep modern-day pirates from plundering the shipwrecks that litter the ocean floor. The rangers direct boats out of fragile ecological areas around the islands, administer first aid to divers, fishermen and sailors and make sure boaters follow the law.

Yet, Fitzgerald recently gave up the national park’s main law enforcement weapon in coastal waters: the biggest boat, which fell victim to budget cuts.


For the last dozen years, a separate federal agency has underwritten the cost of operating the 32-foot Xantu and its three-member crew.

But that agency, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, decided to end its law enforcement role in anticipation of a 50% cut to its yearly budget.

And Channel Islands National Park, also facing a budget squeeze, decided it could not afford the extra $150,000 a year needed to keep the Xantu patrolling the islands.

“It’s crushing, it’s devastating, it’s ridiculous,” Fitzgerald said of the loss.

“This boat has been involved in many rescues and saving a lot of lives and property,” he said. “I imagine that some people’s lives might be lost. There will definitely be an impact on the fisheries. Some people will feel freer to break the law, knowing that there is less probability of getting caught.”

Until the money ran out Oct. 1, the Xantu and its crew took off from the Ventura Harbor five or six days a week to patrol the five-island national park.

Monthly reports to the marine sanctuary manager detailed its activities: confiscating lobster traps from protected areas, checking fishing licenses and searching boats for illegal catches.


Its crew, all trained emergency medical technicians, routinely rescued divers from accidents, plucked shipwrecked boaters from the water or the rocky coastline and handed them over to the Coast Guard.


The Xantu was often one of the first boats on the scene of a mishap because it was patrolling nearby.

“Wherever you can get the help to the mariner, that’s what you are looking for,” said Petty Officer James Bride, of the U.S. Coast Guard’s marine safety office in Long Beach.

Bride said the Xantu will be missed by the rescue coordination center. “It’s only a 32-foot boat, but when you have an emergency situation and you have a crew you can depend on, it’s a tremendous help,” he said.

The Xantu made about half of the national park’s marine patrols. Remaining are four smaller boats assigned to Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands. No boat is stationed at San Miguel Island, the windiest and most remote.

Each of these islands has a lone ranger who acts as host and law enforcement officer. When the rangers are not busy with their principal duties on land, they can launch their inflatable boats and patrol the nearby waters.


“I don’t think there is any gap out at the islands, because the rangers on each island do make marine patrols when the weather and time permits,” said John Miller, manager of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

“Most of the infractions are within one mile of the island,” he said. “I didn’t feel too badly about stopping the program.”

Under federal law, the national park boundaries extend one mile from an island’s shoreline, whereas the National Marine Sanctuary encompasses the waters six miles around each island.

Miller said he decided to cut funding for the Xantu after he was told his annual budget might be cut in half. He asked the national park to split the costs of operating the boat. But when national park officials refused, Miller decided to end the program.

Forced to choose, he said, he decided to keep the sanctuary’s successful public education program. “Changing people’s behavior through education is better,” he said, “than having law enforcement people saying, ‘Damn it, you are doing something wrong.’ ”

With the loss of federal funding, the Xantu has been transferred to the state Department of Fish and Game, the boat’s legal owner.


Fish and Game officials plan to keep the boat in either the Ventura or Santa Barbara harbor. But strapped by their own budget limitations, Fish and Game officials have been forced to sell two of their boats and operate the remaining vessels on a limited basis.

The Yellowtail, a 44-foot boat at the Ventura Harbor, is limited to operating only 28 hours a month, said Fish and Game Lt. John Suchil, the boat’s skipper.

Fish and Game officials intend to use the Xantu to patrol the Channel Islands, Suchil said. But money has grown so scarce that he has developed creative ways to maintain a law enforcement presence around the islands during the height of the fishing and diving seasons.


Suchil laments the loss of the Xantu by the national park and sanctuary.

“Using the Xantu was a form of education,” Suchil said. “The crew informed people about areas closed to fishing, the pelican nesting areas. Basically, they were educating people who are out there, not just [using] a shotgun approach trying to teach the whole world about the sanctuary.”

Gary Davis, a research marine biologist with the National Biological Service, is concerned that the loss of the Xantu comes at a time when the Fish and Game Department has set most abalone species off-limits to harvesting.

Biologists are trying to reestablish pink abalone stock by collecting adult abalone from around the Channel Islands and congregating them on one particular reef to encourage propagation, Davis said.


“This is like the American bison and the end of the buffalo hunt,” he said.

“We’ve collected the last of the herd and put them in one area and hope they reproduce,” he said. “We hope the hunters don’t want to come around for the last ones. Without the Xantu, we may not be able to protect them.”

Fitzgerald said that the loss of the Xantu has strained relations between the national park and the marine sanctuary program.

“We have an agency set up to protect the marine environment, and they have cut law enforcement funding without good justification,” he said. “They just want to put their money into something that has better public relations value.”