Court orders Los Alamos fisherman to pay $19,000 for abandoning lobster traps

Photo courtesy of Patrick Foy
ABANDONED TRAPS: The Santa Barbara County Superior Court ordered 67-year-old Christopher Miller to pay more than $19,000 in restitution for abandoned lobster traps.

Christopher Miller, a 67-year-old Los Alamos resident, pleaded guilty in Santa Barbara County Superior Court for failing to complete lobster commercial fishing records and paid $19,340 in restitution to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and a partnering nonprofit agency to remove at least 156 abandoned lobster traps around Santa Cruz Island. 

Lobster season runs from the first Wednesday in October through the first Wednesday after March 15, according to CDFW commercial fishing regulations. If they’re left in state waters for more than 14 days after the season closes, they’re considered abandoned. Commercial fishing operations are also required by the CDFW to keep a record of fishing activity.

CDFW wildlife officers ordered Miller to remove his traps after the 2021-22 commercial lobster season ended, but he failed to retrieve traps from state waters, according to the CDFW. 

“Those abandoned traps continue to fish after they are abandoned. New lobsters and fish will go in there, they will die, and they become bait for more animals.” CDFW Lt. Scott Cohen told the Sun. “We call them ghost traps because no one is tending to them, they just continue to kill and kill.” 

The CDFW partnered with the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project, a nongovernmental organization funded through the California Coastal Commission, to remove all the traps and submitted its case to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, which filed charges against Miller on May 15, 2023. 

“I think it sends a strong message to the fleet that abandoning traps is not acceptable,” Cohen said. “Failing to do so is really detrimental to the resource. Lobster, I believe, is the second most valuable fishery in California.” 

Gary Bright, Miller’s attorney from the Law Firm of Bright and Powell, told the Sun that Miller wired his traps open so they were not fishing.

“The only reason they were left beyond the time was because he had serious health issues for which he was hospitalized and prevented him from retrieving them on time,” Bright said. “Several fishermen retrieved numerous traps on his behalf because they were aware of the fact that he was in the hospital with some serious health issues.” 

This was Miller’s third time facing commercial lobster regulation violation charges since 2014, when he was charged with failing to display his fishing license and fined $500, according to court documents. In 2017, he accepted conviction—but did not admit guilt—to possessing lobster during closed season and had three other similar charges dismissed in court. 

“He has had a rough couple of years,” CDFW Lt. Cohen said. “I think at the beginning of this case we were making efforts to get him to comply without having to take a regulatory stance, and he just failed to do it and it essentially forced our hand.”

The CDFW is reviewing Miller’s case at this time, and hasn’t committed to submitting a request to the California Fish and Game Commission to revoke his license, he said. 

“Each case is dealt with individually because there’s so many different levels of violations, everything from not buying a fishing license all the way up to falsifying the documents or detriment to the resource,” Cohen said. “We have to look at each violation from all these angles and make a judgment call if it justifies taking away someone’s livelihood.”

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