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Game wardens have accused two of San Diego’s top yachtsmen of poaching shellfish, an odd incident that recently sent shockwaves through their genteel world.
On Aug. 25, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife got a tip that guys were diving off a boat near Catalina Island and bringing up lobster and abalone, said Capt. Patrick Foy, a spokesman for the department’s enforcement division, who described what happened that day.
Lobster season was a month away, and it’s now illegal to harvest abalone any time of year, because of population declines up and down the coast. Abalone are prized mollusks that are endangered because of overfishing and disease.
Game wardens got to the boat, named the EZ Rider, that the men had been seen diving from.
Foy said the boat came back as registered to Chuck Nichols. That name didn’t mean much to the wardens at the time but it means something in San Diego social circles. Nichols is a former commodore of the San Diego Yacht Club. A “commodore” is the elected chairman of the 132-year-old boating and social club.
Nichols did not respond to messages from VOSD.
The EZ Rider was unoccupied but wardens searched it. They found dive gear that looked wet and recently used. They found four shucked abalone and five lobster tails in a cooler.
One of the wardens, Rob Rojas, had been on his college’s swim team. He dove into the water and managed to grab discarded lobster carcasses and abalone guts beneath the boat.
“Now they’ve got a pretty good picture of what happened,” Foy said of the wardens.
The next piece of the puzzle was to find the divers. The wardens went ashore and began asking around for Nichols.
The wardens figured out that Nichols was on another boat, the CC Rider, which was in the middle of a race around part of Catalina, which sits 20 miles off the Southern California coast.
The wardens were by this point on a small patrol skiff, which they used to pull over the CC Rider, which is also registered to Nichols.
They boarded the sailboat, conducted some interviews and found that two members of the crew, Kyle Clark and Jesse James, both 66, admitted to taking the lobsters and abalone.
Clark is also a former commodore of the San Diego Yacht Club.
Neither Clark nor James responded to messages.
Foy said though the lobster and abalone were found on Nichols’ EZ Rider, he wasn’t in trouble. But James and Clark now face $164,000 in total fines, though how much each could be asked to pay will depend on how prosecutors decide to divide up the charges against them. Most of that hefty potential fine comes from the heavy penalty for poaching abalone, which can be between $15,000 and $40,000 apiece.
Foy said the department writes thousands of citations a year, though it does far more than just track down suspected poachers at sea.
His experience is that yacht clubs do not like poachers.
In San Diego, rumors of the incident traveled fast and got a bit out of hand: Nobody was handcuffed or jailed, as one version of events had it.
Michael J. Dorgan, the club’s current commodore, said the incident did not take place during a San Diego Yacht Club event and was not connected to the club in any way.
He also condemned poaching.
“In spite of the lack of a direct connection to SDYC, and while I can’t comment on the specific allegations against the individuals involved, I can tell you that San Diego Yacht Club considers its stewardship of our natural resources to be of tremendous importance in all of our programs, and we always insist that our members follow not only the letter of the law but also the spirit of the law when they participate in SDYC and/or other programs, including our angling activities,” Dorgan said in an email.