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April 14, 2021 – The California Fish and Game Commission recently revoked commercial marine aquaria fishing privileges for David W. Hornbaker due to unlawful take of marine aquaria species. Hornbaker was charged with using an unlawful anesthetic substance to collect in an area in which he was directly warned not to do so, then failed to cooperate with wildlife officers by attempting to destroy evidence.

In Nov. 2013, while on patrol along the frontside of Santa Catalina Island off Emerald Bay, Wildlife Officers Spencer Gilbert (now retired) and Rob Rojas from the patrol boat Thresher, skippered by Lt. Eric Kord, noticed a sailboat anchored offshore. The wildlife officers knew from a prior contact that the boat belonged to Hornbaker, a commercial marine aquaria collector. It is unlawful to collect marine aquaria at Santa Catalina Island. As they approached, they could see that Hornbaker was not on the boat but was underwater on a SCUBA dive. They searched for, and located, tell-tale SCUBA bubbles on the water’s surface. Warden Rojas doffed his uniform and with nothing more than a mask, fins, swim trunks and a breath of air, dove down to observe Hornbaker in 20-30 feet of water. He watched Hornbaker squirt a substance into the reef, resulting in stunned fish exiting the safety of the reef’s hiding places. Hornbaker then scooped the fish with a small aquarium net and placed it into a container strapped to his side. Marine aquaria collecting by use of a chemical liquid substance is unlawful, due to the damage it causes to the reef.

Blue Banded Gobies in the container possessed by the suspect

The fish he had taken from the reef were blue-banded gobies, vibrantly colored blue and orange fish that are highly sought after by marine aquaria collectors due to their high resale value. 

With probable cause that Hornbaker was engaged in unlawful activity, and while still holding his breath, Warden Rojas identified himself underwater as a wildlife officer with a cloth badge and motioned for Hornbaker to surface. While surfacing, Hornbaker attempted to discard two plastic containers that contained the unknown liquid substance used to incapacitate the fish. Warden Rojas took another breath at the surface and dove back down to retrieve the discarded items, containing what had then become evidence. He also seized the container attached to Hornbaker’s side.

During the subsequent inspection of Hornbaker’s vessel, Warden Gilbert noticed a second container on the ocean floor under the boat. He also doffed his uniform, swam down and retrieved another container containing gobies, 172 in all.

Upon further analysis by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Water Pollution Control Laboratory, the unknown chemical liquid substance was analyzed and identified as quinaldine, a known fish anesthetic that is illegal to use for marine aquaria collection off California.

CDFW’s Marine Enforcement District (MED) has some extraordinarily talented and dedicated wildlife officers who go to great lengths to protect California’s marine resources,” said MED Asst. Chief Mike Stefanak. “It takes time for the criminal and administrative processes to work to bring criminals to justice, but the meticulous efforts of Wardens Gilbert and Rojas ultimately resulted in removal of a bad actor from the commercial marine aquaria trade.”

Wildlife officers cited Hornbaker for unlawful take of marine aquaria species off Santa Catalina Island, unlawful use of quinaldine to take fish and for the unlawful deposit of a deleterious substance into California waters. They properly documented the fish for evidentiary purposes then released them, alive, back into the water. Further investigation revealed that prior to the original contact, Hornbaker had been contacted by a different wildlife officer and was explicitly warned it was unlawful to take marine aquaria species off Santa Catalina Island. Because the Commission revoked Hornbaker’s commercial fishing privileges he is permanently prohibited from collecting marine aquaria.