A five-month-long investigation on a commercial lobster poaching suspect concluded with a conviction in Los Angeles County Superior Court in early December, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced. The conviction is on top of prior commercial lobster poaching convictions and occurred while the suspect was on probation for the prior convictions.
After a series of complaints from legitimate commercial lobster harvesters operating offshore of San Pedro and Palos Verdes, Los Angeles County, CDFW launched an investigation of illegal commercial poaching activity. Using a combination of multiple contacts and inspections at sea and at the dock, home visits, analysis of marine navigation equipment seized during the investigation and various surveillance techniques, wildlife officers concluded that Rustin Craig Wilson, 37, of Lawndale, had been engaged in several commercial fishing behaviors that resulted in potential violations of commercial fishing laws and regulations.
Wilson is known to wildlife officers for prior commercial lobster fishing convictions and was in the middle of a 36-month probation for those convictions by a February 13, 2020, court order.
Strict regulation provides for a remarkably successful California spiny lobster fishery for both recreational and commercial harvesters. The stringent rules are designed to allow for a limited amount of take of lobster both recreationally and by commercial harvesters while ensuring the long-term sustainability of the lobster fishery, such as:
• All harvested lobsters have a size limit to ensure they have one or more opportunities to reproduce before growing to legal size for harvest;
• Any harvest must be during an established lobster fishing season, which is outside of the lobster reproductive season;
• Commercial lobster harvesters must employ trap “destruct devices” to automatically open the trap if it is lost to the sea and cannot be recovered because traps without destruct devices can keep fishing and ultimately keep killing lobsters; and
• Traps must be checked at least every seven days. Lobsters left in a trap for longer than that timeframe have an increased risk of limb breakage and mortality.
The investigation revealed evidence of unlawful commercial taking of lobsters within the Blue Cavern Onshore State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) at Santa Catalina Island and failure to service lobster traps within the seven-day mandatory trap check requirement.
“Several legitimate commercial lobster harvesters were frustrated with the unlawful practices of a rogue colleague who was trapping lobsters in a marine protected area and who also failed to responsibly fish with lobster traps he placed in other areas,” said David Bess, CDFW Deputy Director and Chief of the Law Enforcement Division. “The majority of California’s commercial lobster fleet care very much about the long-term viability of the fishery and our wildlife officers appreciate their continued compliance and their assistance with this investigation.”
Wilson pleaded no contest to one count of fishing in the Blue Cavern SMCA and another count of failure to check his traps within the seven-day required period. He was ordered to pay $885 in fines and penalties, ordered to perform 30 days of community labor, must forfeit all seized evidence including traps and his GPS plotter and was placed on probation for 12 months.
During his probation, he is prohibited from fishing either commercially or recreationally anywhere in Los Angeles County, including Catalina and San Clemente islands, nor can his vessel be used to fish. He remains restricted by court order from handling the lobster traps of fellow lobster harvesters, commercial or recreational.
CDFW also thanks Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer and prosecutors at the Environmental Justice Unit for their steadfast effort to prosecute this and many other environmental cases.