Lobster Sting Operation Nets Two Poachers

Michele Norris talks with Mike Norris, a California game warden and lead investigator on the case of two lobster poachers who were arrested Monday after a months-long investigation.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It was a scene straight from film noir. In the middle of the night, a fishing boat creeps at a Los Angeles harbor. The running lights are off. The hull is full of a priced delicacy, hundreds of California's spiny lobsters, far more than the 20 or 30 pounds that most fishermen catch in a day. Game wardens who stopped the boat back in January decided that the explanation for the massive haul was, well, a bit fishy. So they suspected the boat had been prowling in protected coastal regions, a clear violation of the law, but they couldn't prove it.

So they set up a sting using traps full of lobsters with the secret markings. And before dawn on Monday their suspicions proved to be true. And to take up the story from there, we're joined by California game warden Mike Norris. He joins us from the courthouse in Long Beach. And I understand that you're there because of this case right now.

Mr. MIKE NORRIS (Game Warden, California Department of Fish and Wildlife): That's correct. We're here drawing up official charges, which will be levied against the two gentlemen we arrested yesterday at 4:00 AM

NORRIS: Tell us what happened in those pre-dawn hours.

Mr. NORRIS: Well, a week prior a dive team from Fish & Game went down and we planted some marked lobsters in some traps that we believed the gentlemen were using. We put secret marks on the fins of the lobsters and placed them in the trap, photographing them before we did so, so there won't be any question later on. And then we just backed off and waited. And there was a total of 522 pounds worth of lobster aboard their boat that night, which is a tremendous amount for a one night's work.

We seized as evidence about 468 pounds of lobsters and we sold those at market rate, received a check for about $4,300. And that check is being held as evidence, but - so you can imagine if he was able to sell all the lobsters he'd taken that night, he would have cleared about $4,500 in one night.

NORRIS: So you actually sold the lobsters. So this is kind of, I guess, a kind of asset forfeiture.

Mr. NORRIS: Correct.

NORRIS: Now, what about the marked lobsters? I imagine you didn't sell them.

Mr. NORRIS: Right. Those were separated out. Those are part of the case and there may come a day where we lay out 16 marked lobsters on a table in a courtroom and the gentlemen will have a chance to explain how they ended up in his possession.

NORRIS: So you have to keep them alive until then?

Mr. NORRIS: Oh no, Ma'am. They're storage freezer right now. Because the - I don't anticipate the case actually going to court for several months so…

NORRIS: I hope you put another marking on them so they don't wind up in someone's dinner plate if someone finds them in the refrigerator there.

Mr. NORRIS: Oh, no. No, no. They're under lock and key.

NORRIS: Uh-huh. We should say this story caught our attention when it appeared in the Los Angeles Times under the headline, Two Men Caught in Lobster Trap.

Mr. NORRIS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NORRIS: Yeah, yeah. They worked hard to do it and we worked even harder to catch them.

NORRIS: Now, Warden Norris, I want to ask you about these California spiny lobsters. How do they differ from the lobsters that you might find in Cape Cod? Why are they so prized for their flavor?

Mr. NORRIS: Well, I haven't eaten enough Maine lobster side-by-side with a California spiny lobster to really pronounce the difference. But those who really know claim that the meat of the California spiny is a bit sweeter than those from the Maine lobster. And the vast majority of spiny lobster that they're taken commercially here in California are exported to Asia. Physically, the Maine lobster has claws, whereas our California spinys do not.

NORRIS: They don't have claws?

Mr. NORRIS: No. They have long antennas and a very sharp spine along their tail, hence their name.

NORRIS: Were you tempted at all to try at least one before you sold the rest of them?

Mr. NORRIS: Oh, no. I dive for lobsters myself recreationally. In fact, tomorrow night is the end of our season, so if I have the time and energy later tonight I may go skin diving out in our waters tonight to get a meal for myself and family.

NORRIS: Well, Warden Norris, thank you so much for talking to us, and all the best to you if you do hit the waters tonight.

Mr. NORRIS: All right, Michele. Thank you very much.

NORRIS: That was California Game Warden Mike Norris. He joined us from the Long Beach courthouse.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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