SM PIER — It was a clear day out on the Santa Monica Pier, which is good for a photographer, and Sol Zide is a photographer.
A light breeze lipped off the Pacific as he nonchalantly framed his shot. It was a normal patrol until he hit the pier’s fishing area: a couple of grifters were using milk crates and wires to catch lobsters. Bingo.
He popped off a few shots of the poachers and then blew the joint. Time to report back to the brass.
Zide’s not a character from a Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective novel. He’s a 71-year-old retired member of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s volunteer program. That’s right: volunteer. No cabbage, dough, scratch, sugar. The government’s favorite word: zero.
A couple years ago Fish and Wildlife opened an office in Marina del Rey. Santa Monica’s got one full-time paid warden, he said. The rest is up to the volunteers.
The National Resource Volunteer Program tends to look for people over 50 with at least 24 hours a month to spare, said Lt. Kent Smirl who heads the Southern California arm of the program.
It’s an intensive program, he said, and they go through 80 hours of training.
“It’s basically an unpaid professional position,” Smirl said.
“We’re not a bunch of yahoos,” Zide said. “Most of our guys are professionals.”
On top of his photography work, Zide has experience driving boats up and down the coast, from Baja to Seattle. He’s gone out on government boats, cracking down the “scumbags” who clam in the illegal areas.
When he saw the lobster poachers, he knew right away. You have to have a license to catch lobsters and you have to use a hoop-net. He saw they didn’t have the latter, which means they probably also lacked the former.
“I’ve been around,” he said. “It’s just knowledge you pick up.”
He snapped photos over the next week until he’d built a case, which he brought to his supervisor.
“Poachers are taking more than their limit (seven) and taking short lobsters (babies). That’s cutting into the breeding numbers,” he said. “You’ll also see them down there with triple-hooks. We’ve got a lot of rules.”
His supervisor put him in touch with the warden.
“I came back a few days later and the traps were gone,” he said. “We are a bit of a detective. One of the mantras is observe and report.”
Currently, the Marina station has only four volunteers — a few recent volunteers died, got sick, or couldn’t keep up, Zide said.
They are looking for a dozen or so new volunteers so they can expand further into the Santa Monica area, he said.
The volunteers would do a lot of conservation coaching, Smirl said.
Zide’s been trained to differentiate between tracks left by dogs and those left by coyotes. If they had the manpower, a volunteer like Zide would help educate Santa Monicans on the best ways to live with coyotes in their neighborhood.
“Believe it or not, people put out food for them because they think it’s cool,” he said.
He praised Santa Monica’s current system for dealing with coyotes but said that education — passed on by an unpaid volunteer — could always help.
“It really relieves the wardens,” Zide said. “They don’t have to spend the man-hours with the education because we can do it for them.”
Zide is full of good advice.
“We tell them to take an empty soda can, fill it with pennies, tape it up, and throw it at (the coyotes),” he said. “They get scared off by the noise. And by something being thrown at them.”
Volunteers patrol the beaches and pier checking for fishing licenses and looking for “unsavories,” Zide said. They wear green pants and service boots like the police. They have badges.
“We see dope peddling,” he said. “People with beer cans. They see us coming. You see them packing up and leaving.”
Zide, who’s been volunteering since last April, loves it.
“My friends say I have the best job in the world,” Zide said. “I’m having more fun than anybody.”
An extended training academy will be held for four days starting on April 1 in the Los Alamitos office. For more information, visit dfg.ca.gov/volunteer/nrvp.