ENCINITAS — For lifelong fisherman Joe Cooper, using advanced radar equipment to help bust poachers off the San Diego County coast is just another day on the Pacific in his refurbished ’77 Boston Whaler.
Cooper, of Encinitas, grew up around his family’s commercial fishing boat but later grew disillusioned with the industry due to the increasingly stark consequences of overfishing: fewer and smaller fish.
“I kinda gave up on fishing because everything caught along the coast was just barely legal (size),” Cooper told The Coast News. “It just wasn’t fun anymore.”
So the fisherman turned marine conservationist to help revitalize fragile marine habitats while enhancing for-profit fishing.
Since 2015, Cooper has contracted with Wildcoast — an international nonprofit helping preserve California’s coastal wildlife and ecosystems — to collect data pertaining to illegal fishing within San Diego County’s marine protected areas, or MPAs, from South La Jolla to Moonlight Beach.
Marine protected areas
Statewide, there are 124 protected areas covering approximately 852 square miles, or 16%, of coastal waters, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. In most of these protected areas, which were wholly revamped under the state’s Marine Protection Act in 1999, fishing is either strictly prohibited or highly regulated.
For years, these areas have served as “recharge zones” to help enhance marine biodiversity by stimulating the growth of kelp forests and myriad life aquatic — all of which leads to “spillover” of bigger, healthier fish into designated commercial fishing areas.
In San Diego County, there are 11 marine protected areas that fall under three categories: State marine reserves and state marine conservation areas (take and no-take).
The result of these conservation efforts? Better fishing.
According to a study, a 35% reduction in the total fishing area due to the creation of marine protected zones resulted in a 225% increase in total catch.
“Honestly, it makes it more sustainable for everybody, and for me, it’s about the sustainability of fishing,” Cooper said. “I never thought I’d see fish get bigger — white seabass, Yellowtail. Fishermen aren’t just catching barely legal anymore; they have a chance to get trophy-size stuff. It’s kind of cool that it happened after these MPAs came around. No lobster traps when you’re surfing. You go out to the tidepools, and you’re going to see stuff. More birds, more everything.”
However, environmental stewardship and safe zones don’t eliminate the daily stream of poachers who seek to rob the local coastline of its valuable sea life.
According to Cooper, one lawless angler can damage marine habitat within a protected area, setting back healthy growth for years. And it happens more often than law enforcement officials may like to admit.
“South La Jolla gets hammered hard with poaching,” Cooper said. “Encinitas get hit less but we have seen a few commercial operators here and they do much more harm than the accidental poaching recreational fisherman.”
What most commercial and recreational operators don’t realize is Cooper’s 19-foot specialized skiff is equipped with a considerable advantage in the fight against the maritime plunder of fragile habitats: a cutting-edge surveillance system capable of pinpointing real-time illicit angling within a five-mile radius.
The Marine Monitor (M2) system, connected to a Furuno radar antenna secured atop Cooper’s boat and the Moonlight Beach lifeguard tower, utilizes software to identify hot spots for poaching activity, record a vessel’s path history for playback and issue alerts based on activity within target areas.
Cooper’s boat-based radar setup, in partnership with a land-based radar and camera system, provide valuable data that helps enforcement officials efficiently deploy thinly-stretched assets.
Each data point is collected and stored within the M2 cloud, improving the system’s algorithm to better detect and anticipate poaching behavior.
“Our focus is data collection to help law enforcement efficiently use their limited resources by identifying what poaching behavior looks like on radar when it is most likely to occur and then sending an alert to enforcement officers when the radar algorithm triggers,” Cooper said.
When Cooper and the Wildcoast team locate a boat that appears to be engaged in illegal fishing, they collect data for the M2 system algorithm, forward the precise geographic location of the potential violator and report their findings to CalTIP (Californians Turn In Poachers and Polluters), a confidential phone line to report poaching violations.
Cooper invited The Coast News to observe a routine patrol from Mission Bay to Moonlight Beach last month. After removing several balloons from the water, a frequent occurrence in daily patrols, Cooper’s M2 radar picked up a suspicious boat within the South La Jolla State Marine Conservation Area.
Upon closer examination, Lillie Mulligan, conservation program coordinator at Wildcoast, confirmed an individual was illegally fishing in a protected zone and reported the observation to CalTIP. Cooper documented the sighting in the M2 system, taking a screenshot of the boat’s precise geolocation with a timestamp.
Since Wildcoast has no authority to issue citations or detain poachers, it’s up to law enforcement to pursue a lead. But this type of real-time information can be a helpful first step to make arrests and write tickets.
In December 2020, Cooper was calibrating a radar system at Moonlight Beach in the Swami’s State Marine Conservation Area when he spotted several illegal lobster pots underneath the water’s surface. After reporting the trap line, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers responded to the call.
While examining the lobster pots, officers noticed a dozen passengers illegally fishing from Electra, a commercial passenger fishing vessel anchored in the northwest corner of Swami’s conservation zone.
The boat, owned by Helgren’s Sportfishing, is based out of Oceanside harbor.
While law enforcement never identified the owner of the illegal lobster pots, Joseph Helgren, owner of the Electra, was arrested, pleaded guilty and received a $5,000 fine.
This particular case led to a couple of milestones. The Electra case marked the first arrest directly attributed to the M2 radar system. And it’s the first case to be prosecuted under a 2019 state law that increased fines for commercial poaching violations within state marine protected areas.
In North County, Swami’s State Marine Conservation Area was first established in 2012, encompassing Moonlight Beach and San Elijo and Cardiff state beaches. One of the state’s largest marine conservation areas, Swami’s MPA covers nearly 13 square miles, stretching from Cottonwood Creek to the northern edge of Solana Beach and extending approximately three miles offshore.
Recreational take in this zone is limited to shore fishing (hook and line) and spearfishing pelagic, such as Yellowtail, Northern anchovy, jack mackerel, salmon, Pacific herring, sardine and tuna.
Cooper warns that illegal fishing in Swami’s MPA is a risky prospect and relatively easy to spot on radar. For even the most undiscerning eye, any watercraft operating in the Swami’s protected zone sticks out like a cherry on a cream pie.
“Swami’s is great (for poaching detection) because it’s wide open,” Cooper said. “The radar is picking up only a couple of anomalies.”
Another concern for Wildcoast in Swami’s MPA is protecting a great many creatures in the intertidal zone, the area between low and high tide lines. Specifically, visitors will forage tidepools to collect sea anemones, barnacles, crabs, octopus and lobster, which can seriously harm the local ecosystem.
“Swami’s has a problem with the tidepooling,” Cooper said. “When the tide gets low, people go out to Swami’s reef and start flipping over rocks. They’ll be down there with buckets collecting stuff — octopus, abalone — despite the signs down there prohibiting it.”
Eric Kord, assistant chief for marine enforcement with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, has been patrolling the San Diego coast for more than 24 years. The state agency responsible for protecting the state’s vast wildlife and natural habitats consists of approximately 480 sworn officers, 50 dedicated to marine enforcement.
“The biggest challenge for us is obviously being everywhere we can with the number of officers we have,” Kord said. “We try to schedule our patrols around popular fishing holidays and season openers.”
According to Kord, visitors fishing in closed areas are the most frequent violations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, state wildlife officers noticed a significant increase in violations amongst people trying to get out of the house and catch their seafood, often unknowingly venturing into marine protected areas.
Aside from meandering dayboats and unwitting anglers, some malefactors knowingly hit these sensitive areas.
“A smaller majority of the violators are people who intentionally target MPAs because they know marine life, depending on species, can be abundant,” Kord said. “These people are looking for some financial gain by poaching from these areas — something with a high dollar on the black market, such as lobster and abalone. It’s damaging in the fact a resource is being taken. The idea of an MPA is for the protected life there to spread out and repopulate the surrounding areas.”
Like the state-of-the-art radar system on Cooper’s boat, state Fish and Wildlife have access to M2 land-based radars at Swami’s State Marine Conservation Area and Campus Point Marine Conservation Area in Santa Barbara.
While this surveillance equipment is very helpful in identifying poachers, Kord said it serves as supplemental evidence — an extra investigative layer when making an arrest or issuing a citation.
“We can never issue a citation based on radar observation alone,” Kord said. “I know these radars can take photographs, but you still need officers on the water and along the shoreline to make an arrest and issue a citation. We need officers to board a vessel, document gear and identify suspects.”
In addition to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, lifeguards with the cities of Encinitas and San Diego were recently trained to identify poaching activities and ticket perpetrators operating within state conservation areas.
Unlike just a few years ago, poaching fines in California pack a wallop. For a first-time offender, penalties range from $100 to $1,000. For commercial violators, the stakes have gotten much higher, with fines starting at a minimum of $5,000 up to $40,000 (or more) and up to a year in county jail. Repeat offenders may also have their commercial fishing license suspended.
Angela Kemsley, conservation director at Wildcoast, said recently increased penalties serve as an effective deterrent in the group’s fight to preserve delicate marine ecosystems in San Diego County.
“Before (the new law), commercial violators were getting fined the same as recreational boaters, so the max fine was $1,000,” said Kemsley. “But some of the (commercial) boats could make $10,000 per trip, so they would just take the hit and keep fishing illegally in the MPAs.”
Kemsley said Wildcoast, funded by grants and donations, supports law enforcement agencies, such as the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department, to improve compliance within marine protected areas.
The nonprofit, which recently opened an office in Del Mar, provides information on potential poaching hotspots, historical data to help prosecute potential violators, trends in human behavior in coastal spaces to better inform future patrols, and conducting law enforcement training, including county prosecutors.
“It’s important that everyone — from government agencies to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to the public — work together to conserve our blue spaces,” Kemsley said.
If you witness a poaching or polluting incident or any fish and wildlife violation, or have information about such a violation, immediately dial the toll-free CalTIP number 1 888 334-CALTIP (888 334-2258), 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Or you may submit anonymous tips to CDFW using tip411, an internet-based tool from CitizenObserver.com that enables the public to text message an anonymous tip to wildlife officers and lets the officers respond, creating an anonymous two-way conversation. Anyone with a cell phone may send an anonymous tip to CDFW by texting “CALTIP,” followed by a space and the message to 847411 (tip411).