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Turning the Tide on Poachers

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Watching out for poachers, pilferers and polluters isn’t what most people would consider a day at the beach. For Jeremy Frimond, life couldn’t get much better.

MPO Jeremy Frimond educates Mitch and Stephenie Little of Rancho Santa Fe about the local tide-pool habitat near Main Beach. Photo by Jody Tiongco.

MPO Jeremy Frimond educates Mitch and Stephenie Little of Rancho Santa Fe about the local tide-pool habitat near Main Beach. Photo by Jody Tiongco.

Frimond, 27, pinned on the badge as Laguna Beach’s marine protection officer in 2013. He works with lifeguards, tide-pool docents and educators and watchful locals to ensure that sea life at the seashore remains alive and left alone.

Frimond was born and raised in Laguna and graduated from Laguna Beach High School in 2005. He surfed, snorkeled and practiced water polo every summer for the high school team’s regular season. After that, as a lot of water-polo players here do, he became a summer lifeguard; he wore the red trunks for eight years.

He graduated with a degree in zoology from UC Santa Barbara and was selected for an internship to study great white sharks at the Oceans Research institute in Mossel Bay on the Indian Ocean, which is on what is called the Garden Route in western South Africa, Frimond said.

At the end of his internship, he was asked to come back in a paid position to manage the institution, he said. Part of the job was talking to locals about great whites, letting them know what they were facing. “You’ve got the terrifying great white shark,” Frimond said. “It’s the locals’ ocean as well. There’s shark fatalities down there. They happen. They happened while I was there to people swimming, surfing, just recreating in the ocean.”

He was in South Africa for three years.

On a visit home, a lifeguard told Frimond about the open MPO position and that it was “a sweet gig,” he said. He read the job description and thought the same. He was homesick and interested. He got the job, competing with 100 other applicants. Two others previously filled the job created in 2005, establishing the county’s first marine protection officer position initiated by the nonprofit Laguna Ocean Foundation.

Frimond now watches over the city’s coastline. His primary territory during his 40-hour-a-week beat is Laguna’s nearly seven miles of coastline, most of it designated as a State Marine Reserve, with the highest level of no-take restrictions. The trick to his job, he said, is to know the difference between an offense that requires simply educating the person or citing the person for causing irreparable damage.

Citations are written, says Frimond, when the violation causes “loss of life.”

“Anytime someone has speared or fished anything or killed an animal and it can’t be returned to its environment and go on, that’s egregious,” he said, and warrants a ticket with often a hefty fine, up to $800 for every live animal taken.

“If someone has pulled a single mussel off and they’re very compliant, that would be an education,” he said. “I don’t like it but it would be an education contact. If someone pulls two dozen, three dozen mussels off, that’s egregious.”

The “psychology” behind a citation, Frimond said, is to correct a behavior. “That’s why an enforcement official issues a citation, unfortunately, to correct that behavior the hard way.”

Frimond reports directly to Tom Trager, the city’s marine safety captain. “Jeremy knows the safety aspects of the beach better than anyone we could hope to fill the position,” said Trager. “And he’s pretty personable so people like him.” Trager said his department talks to 20,000 people on the beach a year about ecological concerns. Frimond makes that job easier on the lifeguards, who need to concentrate on people in the water. “He’s our extra set of eyes and can focus on this area 100 percent.”

Besides taking seashells, which need to decompose to remineralize the ocean with calcium carbonate, another top offense, Frimond said, are fishing violations. These include fishing without a license, taking undersize catch, bagging over the limit and night-diving for lobsters.

“The reality is there’s one of me and there’s 40 hours a week,” said Frimond. He depends on “intel,” tips from beachgoers about a potential violation. Regular ocean swimmers have a fish-eye view of what’s going on and call him when something’s amiss, he said.

State marine officers also rely on locals to spot potentially harmful actions. “Most of our calls come from Cal-TIP,” said Ryan Cordero, one of four Department of Fish and Wildlife wardens for Orange County. “It’s the locals who know the lay of the land. They’re very vigilant.”

The most egregious case in Laguna so far, said Cordero, was an illegal catch of 47 lobsters 15 days after new marine areas were designated as protected sanctuaries. The two people responsible were diving after midnight, according to reports. The area below Heisler Park in north Laguna had been closed to fishing and trapping for years prior to the new protections that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2012.

Other than that, Cordero said no one has been malicious about illegal fish-takes. “Compliance is very high,” he said. Most calls concern boats with four to six sport-fishing enthusiasts who are “completely ignorant” about the no-take rules even though they are required to know better by virtue of their fishing licenses, he said.

Frimond said he never imagined working on the other side of a badge but is happy where he landed. “My goal is to always make a living on, in, above, around the water,” said Frimond. “I love the ocean. It’s the great leveler, my dad always says. Just look at the horizon. It’s very peaceful, flat, straight, calm.”

The Cal-TIP (Californians Turn In Poachers and Polluters) hotline toll-free numbers are open 24-7. To anonymously report poachers or polluters, call 1-888-334-2258; to report oil spills, call 1-800-852-7550; or visit www.wildlife.ca.gov.

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