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Officials: Poaching along Garcia River threatens fish recovery

Overlooking the Garcia River in Mendocino County, Department of Fish and Game Warden Don Powers, right and a federal agent, left, who declined to be identified, watch for poachers Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. $20 million in government and private donations for restoration of the Garcia fishery are endangered due to the poaching of the migrating fish.

(Kent Porter / Press Democrat)
Published: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 2:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 3:11 p.m.

On a warm February afternoon Game Warden Don Powers quietly watched a group of young men attempting to spear steelhead trout in a scenic and remote hole along the Garcia River.

Facts

FISHING INFORMATION

For current regulations on fishing and hunting in California, including licensing requirements and fees, visit www.wildlife.ca.gov. To report illegal fishing or other poaching, call 888-DFG-CalTIP (888-334-2258).

To report the illegal taking of federally-listed threatened or endangered fish, call NOAA at (800) 853-1964.

After a while of seeing them fumble with the equipment, wounding fish but landing only a few, Powers emerged from hiding and approached them.

“What are you guys doing,” he recalls asking. The men hesitated. “Uh,” they said slowly. “Poaching?”

“Poaching. That's a good word; I like that word,” Powers said last week, laughing at the memory of the bust while playing with a pile of their confiscated spear guns and wetsuits in the back of his truck.

The men were among dozens that Powers and his fellow agents have cited along the river in recent years.

Poaching of the threatened steelhead and endangered coho salmon is common on the beautiful Mendocino County river, agents say, and is undermining more than two decades of pioneering restoration efforts by environmentalists, timber companies and private landowners. The issue is aggravated by a disagreement between state and federal agencies on how to enforce the law on a section of the river that goes through Native American tribal land.

“Poaching is a problem on every river I patrol,” said Powers, who is assigned to the Mendocino Coast by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, “But nothing like the Garcia.”

While officials won't put a hard number on the losses to poaching, Powers said the picture is clear on the ground.

“They're clubbing and gigging, and gill netting and spear fishing,” he said. “I'm like, Dude, how long do you think it's going to take to have an effect on your fishery?"

And it is already having that effect. Powers and area landowners, who are reluctant to go on record for fear of retaliation from the poachers, say they saw a slow but steady increase in trout and salmon populations through the early 2000s, but in the last three or four years, the numbers have dropped off considerably. They no longer see many legitimate sport fishermen venturing up river, where they are allowed to catch and release fish provided they have a license and don't use barbed hooks.

“I'm seeing some fish, but I am not seeing the fish you see in other rivers,” Powers said. “I talk to a lot of fishermen and they're not catching them in the numbers they used to.”

The law enforcement effort is complicated by the presence of two pieces of riverfront property that are part of the Manchester-Point Arena Rancheria and controlled by the Manchester Band of Pomo Indians.

Federal agents have deputized state agents to enforce fishing regulations on Native American lands and federal property all over the state, said Special Agent Derek Roy of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Santa Rosa field office.

“They are federal agents, just like we are,” Roy said.

Roy is one of just two federal agents to enforce federal wildlife laws in all of the fisheries between Santa Cruz and the Oregon border, though there are plans to add a third this year. Deputizing local officers is the only way to make sure there are reasonably frequent eyes on the places where endangered species live, he said.

State agents, however, say they have been instructed not to work on Native American land without the presence of a federal agent.

“If we see illegal activity, we can't do anything about it,” DFW Lt. Dennis McKiver said.

He said his agents on the Garcia have seen gill nets, designed to catch salmon and trout, deployed in front of Rancheria land. While state agents can remove the nets, they cannot enter the Rancheria to find out who placed them there.

DFW spokesman Mike Taugher said state law exempts tribe members from the state Game Code provided they are acting on tribal lands, a provision known as Section 12300. That would not, however, block agents from enforcing state law against tribal members off their lands.

Although DFG agents are deputized to enforce federal law, including acting on the Rancheria, it is the department's policy to refer federal violations to the appropriate agencies, he said.

“We don't have unlimited resources,” he said. “Our guys are out there doing their best to enforce state law. That's a full time job.”

In 2010, the latest year for which data is available, the department's 263 wardens issued more than 16,000 citations for various game code violations statewide, more than half related to sport fishing, but reported participating in just 60 federal cases.

Tribal administrator Christine Dukatz reacted angrily last week when asked about possible poaching from tribal lands, calling it “hearsay.”

“We will comment on facts; we will not comment on hearsay,” she said, before refusing to discuss it further. Other tribal officials did not respond to a request for an interview.

And the problem is not just on tribal lands. Powers said he has encountered poachers armed with prohibited nets and illegal barbed and weighted hooks taking fish from the river from private lands for miles upriver.

Biologists are wary of saying exactly how badly the poaching is damaging the slowly rebounding Garcia fish population; the number of fish present in any given year is the result of a complex equation involving many factors, including currents and food supplies far out in the ocean.

But they say that populations of coho salmon and steelhead trout in the Garcia are so delicate that the loss of even a few breeding-age fish can make a difference.

“We need every fish,” said biologist Doug Albin, who studies the region for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Particularly we need every adult fish.”

While there is little hard data on how many fish are in the river, biologists estimate that the number of steelhead coming to the river to spawn every year is in the hundreds, while the number of coho salmon may be just in the dozens.

A healthy population would see at least 2,800 coho salmon and 3,200 steelhead trout returning to the Garcia every year, said Josh Fuller, a fisheries biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The poaching is undoing more than two decades of restoration efforts that many cite as a model program uniting environmentalists, timber companies and regulators. Environmental groups have paid more than $21 million to acquire timber lands or obtain conservation easements, and the state and federal governments have poured in millions more for research and habitat restoration.

“It really is kind of a poster-child type of project, with everybody together,” said Harry Morse, spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The one critical link is there isn't enough enforcement” to prevent poaching.

Hiking along the river last week, Powers pointed to signs of furtive human activity on the banks, including garbage, paths hacked out of the underbrush with machetes and even a crude cabin made of redwood fence rails not far from where he busted the spear fishermen.

Based on various evidence, including tips from locals and artificial lights he has found left along the river, Powers said it appears that the poachers tend to come out at night. The full moon in February, which came on a crystal-clear night, seems to have brought out fishermen as well.

While it has been brewing for several years, the issue of poaching on the Garcia was thrown into the public eye a year ago when state and local officers, searching a suspected marijuana plot, came upon a cache of 56 frozen ducks and 18 steelhead trout, 17 of which were spawning females.

Prosecutors charged Kyle Edward Stornetta, 32, of Manchester with three misdemeanors: taking the fish from the river, possessing illegally taken fish, and possessing more than the allowable number of ducks. All state game code-related offenses are misdemeanors, prosecutor Tim Stoen said.

Stornetta, a member of a prominent local ranching family, is due in court in Ft. Bragg on March 20 to face a preliminary hearing on the poaching charges and two separate felony charges in connection with the marijuana case.

Stoen, who normally prosecutes felony cases, says his office has handled a number of poaching cases related to abalone, crab and salmon taken from the open ocean, but this is the first case he can recall related to the Garcia River. It seems to have come to his desk only because the poaching charges were bundled with the felonies related to the marijuana case.

Powers said he and his fellow agents in the area issue 500 or more citations a year for poaching of various sorts, including illegal hunting on land. About 15 of those citations are for illegal fishing on the Garcia, though clearly that is a small fraction of the poaching activity going on while agents are not around.

There is little historical data about the numbers of fish that once lived in the river, but biologists say that the Garcia was a thriving hub of North Coast fisheries. The mouth of the river sticks well out into the ocean at Point Arena, one of the westernmost points on the West Coast, making it a magnet for steelhead trout and at least three species of salmon: coho, some Chinook, and even the occasional red, also known as sockeye.

It also happened to support a vigorous redwood forest, sprawling across tens of thousands of acres, which proved to be the watershed's undoing. Timber companies were drawn to the riverside redwoods and by the 1950s and '60s, large swaths of the forest had been cleared. That led to erosion, which buried the gravelly fish spawning beds in mud. Logging roads across the river blocked the fish's access to spawning grounds and covered over some feeder streams entirely.

The loss of trees meant fewer branches and trunks in the water to create pools and places for fish to hide from predators. It also meant less shade in the summer, leading to higher water temperatures, a particularly bad sign for the finicky and delicate coho salmon.

By the 1990s, state and federal officials had identified the river as “impaired” under the federal Clean Water Act and began efforts to clean up the mess. Timber companies, environmental groups and local landowners agreed to replant forests and restore the river to something like its natural state, using a combination of public and private money.

Before-and-after photos of the river show a dramatic change from muddy, barren and sharply eroded banks to the richer, smoother, grass- and tree-covered banks visible today. Environmentalists and regulators call the project a model for other rivers up the coast.

“Of all the watersheds on the Mendocino and Sonoma coast, that's the one that has received the greatest attention,” Albin said.

Why the Garcia has received more attention from poachers as well is not clear. Other rivers in the area have better fish populations and are also remote and difficult to patrol, Powers said.

And the fish numbers in the Garcia aren't large enough to support subsistence fishing, let alone build up an illegal commercial trade, Powers said, so the poaching can't be driven by economics.

Based on his frontline experience, Powers said it just seems that there is a loose but entrenched culture of poaching along the river, including youths and young adults with little regard for authority and a poor understanding of the environmental consequences of their actions. The difficulty of consistently enforcing the law on the remote stretches of the river allowed the culture to perpetuate as the fish began tentatively to return following the environmental restoration.

“I think people have seen in this area certain things that have occurred,” Powers said, surveying the quiet, forested banks last week. “They say, 'Hey, why can't I do that too?'”

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)

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