Lobster traps net two men

Times Staff Writer

The battleship-gray fishing boat roared past in the dead of night with its running lights off, catching the attention of game wardens patrolling the open ocean just outside Los Angeles Harbor.

An onboard inspection turned up hundreds of California spiny lobsters -- prized for their sweet flavor and meaty tails -- but the skipper’s story about where he caught them didn’t seem to hold water.

The edgy encounter in early January prompted an elaborate undercover operation featuring an array of sophisticated tactics -- including divers plunging into dangerous inky waters to secretly seed the fisherman’s traps with marked lobsters -- that would seem right at home in a James Bond adventure.


It all culminated before dawn Monday with the arrests of two men who state Department of Fish and Game officials say had raided a protected marine refuge of lobsters, thereby gaining an unfair advantage over competitors who abided by state fishing regulations.

Only two days before the close of California’s six-month spiny lobster fishing season, “most commercial fishermen can work all day long to catch 20 to 30 pounds,” said Fish and Game Capt. Martin Maytorena. “These suspects fished one day and trapped 500 pounds.”

Michael Hulse, 59, of Terminal Island and crewman Ramon Sambrano, 37, of San Pedro were arrested without incident at a Cerritos Channel marina in Long Beach as they prepared to unload their catch, authorities said. They were unaware that the catch included about 15 marked lobsters placed inside their wire-mesh traps a week earlier by state divers.

The mark, a tiny diamond-shaped hole that would not occur in nature, had been punched into the lobsters’ tails, said state Department of Fish and Game Lt. Dan Sforza, one of two divers who seeded the suspects’ traps set 116 feet below the surface on an ocean floor known for its soft muddy bottom, rocky outcroppings, poor visibility and harsh currents.

The divers used sonar to locate the illegally placed traps in the murky water, then swam toward them with the help of compasses. Their time on the sea floor was limited by the amount of air they carried on their backs.

“We had about 10 minutes to get down there and put the lobsters inside their traps -- that’s not a lot of time to fool around,” Sforza said.

Boat owner Hulse was charged with grand theft of property belonging to the people of California, and possession of fraudulent documents, both felonies, authorities said. Sambrano was charged with a single count of grand theft of property worth more than $400 from the people of the state.

Hulse, who authorities believe lives alone in the marina, was not immediately available for comment.

For those who protect coastal wildlife resources, it was a significant bust. There are 246 people in the state, including Hulse and Sambrano, licensed to take California spiny lobster. Authorities say they know commercial poaching of lobsters occurs, but they rarely catch anyone.

Two men were caught in 2002 off Dana Point with 110 baby lobsters, all too small for legal harvesting.

The lobsters taken Monday from Hulse’s boat were hauled to a San Pedro fish market, where they were expected to sell for about $10 a pound, authorities said.

“We’ll store the marked lobsters in water and hold them as evidence,” Sforza said.

Proceeds from the sale of the others will be deposited in an escrow account.

“If the suspects prevail in court, they’ll get the money back,” Maytorena said. “If they’re found guilty, the money will go into a Department of Fish and Game preservation fund.”

Investigators said they believe Hulse had trapped the pricey crustaceans more than once in the same location since lobster season began on the first Wednesday of October.

The spot is in Santa Monica Bay two to three miles off the Venice Pier, where “bugs” -- as lobsters are called -- have been off-limits to commercial fishing operators since the 1930s.

“It doesn’t take long for two individuals working like this to put a lot of pressure on the resource,” Maytorena said.

Although Santa Monica Bay is a place of frequent pollution warnings, biologists say that consuming lobsters caught in its waters does not a pose health risk.

Hulse, who lives in a modest wood-frame house adjacent to the dock where he keeps his 25-foot boat, had been under surveillance for months, authorities said. On Monday, he reached the dock in the marina at Long Beach, sandwiched between massive harbor cranes and bobbing oil pumping stations, about 3 a.m. Investigators were waiting for him.

It took investigators more than three hours to inspect the craft, sort through the catch and separate the marked animals, then cart containers bristling with lobsters to a pickup truck for transport to market.

Mike Norris, lead investigator and a state game warden assigned to the San Pedro and Long Beach areas, said the case began shortly after game wardens crossed paths with Hulse at sea in January.

The investigation’s code words, Operation Panulirus, were taken from the scientific name for the shellfish delicacy, Panulirus interruptus.

The nocturnal crustaceans are found in the caves and crevices of rocky reefs. The season, which runs from late October to mid-March, is timed to coincide with the period when the lobsters are not breeding and moving into deeper waters.

Judging from the number caught in recent years, the population is healthy.

So far this season, California spiny lobster fishers have taken about 1,057,000 pounds worth an estimated $7.8 million, according to Kristine Barsky, a state biologist and expert on the California lobster fishing industry.

A record 1.1 million pounds of spiny lobster was hauled out of California’s waters in 1949.

Operation Panulirus involved about 15 game wardens, some of them from as far away as San Diego and Ventura. They were assisted by the Long Beach Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and relied on radar, electronic surveillance equipment, night scopes and binoculars to monitor the suspects’ activities and bait their traps with the living evidence.

Then they waited.

“Lobster season ends Wednesday, and the weather was getting nasty on the open ocean,” said state game warden Lt. Kent Smirl, “so we knew he’d have to go out and service his traps some time soon.”

“He headed out Sunday night,” Smirl said. “After that, it was just a matter of waiting for him to come back with the lobsters.”