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Grand Theft Seafood: Popular Farmers' Market Fish Vendor Arrested on Multiple Charges

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Officers investigating Sea Fever Seafood. | Photo: Courtesy CDFW
Officers investigating Sea Fever Seafood. | Photo: Courtesy CDFW

The proprietor of Sea Fever Seafood, one of the most popular booths at the Sunday Hollywood Farmers' Market for years, was arrested Sunday by game wardens from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in Santa Barbara Harbor following a two-month-long investigation. The CDFW charged John Wilson, 53, and his assistant, Kai Griffin, 23, with conspiracy and grand theft.

As one of the few places in Los Angeles where shoppers could buy freshly caught, local (Santa Barbara) seafood and shellfish direct from the fisherman, Sea Fever was always a big market draw.

Wilson and Griffin are accused of skimming fish from local receivers. A receiver is a middleman, someone who collects and stores fish from a number of fishermen before they are sent to retail establishments and restaurants. The receiver does not actually own the fish, so the theft was not from the middleman, but from the fishermen themselves.

The investigation began in response to several anonymous reports to CalTIP (Californians Turn in Poachers and Polluters), a confidential witness program run by the CDFW. The reported thefts were never very large, about 30-50 pounds at a time,

In response to the tips, game wardens from Santa Barbara and Ventura counties turned to police work to determine the culprits; performing stakeouts, video and photo surveillance, and legwork.

Out of season Kellet's whelks sold at Sea Fever Seafood. | Photo: Courtesy CSFW
Out of season Kellet's whelks sold at Sea Fever Seafood. | Photo: Courtesy CSFW

In addition to the thefts, game wardens also claim that Wilson sold illegally landed fish, such as sea urchins, out of season Kellet's whelks, live rock crabs, and clawed rock crabs. "Illegally landed" essentially means that Wilson did not catch the fish himself or did not have the proper paperwork for the fish. All the allegedly illicit fish are common game fish. None were endangered or otherwise prohibited for sale.

While the initially reported amounts stolen were relatively small, they do add up. The value of the stolen and illegally landed fish over the two-month investigation is estimated to be tens of thousands of dollars.

Fish theft itself is not uncommon. Generally, however, it is civilians irregularly taking from commercial crab pots or lobster traps. This case is unusual, however, in that it is a commercial fisherman allegedly stealing from other fisherman. Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the CDFW, says that he has not seen a similar case in his four years with the department.

Fishermen in Santa Barbara are said to be disheartened. One member of the local commercial fishing community, who wished to remain anonymous, said it "not easy to comprehend" and that this was a "challenging situation; tough on the harbor community."

The menu board at Sea Fever Seafood. | Photo: Courtesy CDFW

In recent years, a number of farmers at certified farmers' markets have been charged with selling produce that they themselves did not grow. This seems to be the first case of a farmers' market vendor who is allegedly selling produce he not only didn't harvest himself, but stole.

Sustainable Economic Enterprise of Los Angeles (SEE-LA), which runs seven farmers' markets in greater Los Angeles, including the Sunday Hollywood Farmers' Market, has already revoked Sea Fever Seafood's participation in their markets. SEE-LA Executive Director James Haydu released this statement:

"We are sad to learn of the recent CDFW findings alleging that John Wilson of Seafever, a very popular Hollywood Farmers' Market Vendor, has been caught selling stolen product from fellow fisherman at our market. This allegation, among others, has been more than enough for us to permanently revoke his privileged to sell at our market. We have notified the proper local agencies of our decision. "This is an unfortunate example of how trust becomes compromised within the community of chefs and customers who patronized his booth weekly. We are working with the proper authorities to make sure they have all the information necessary to prosecute."

As of press, the Santa Barbara District Attorney has not formally filed charges. If charged with felony grand theft, Wilson could face up to three years in prison. In addition, Wilson also faces fines and revocation of his commercial fishing license.

Attempts to reach Wilson, Griffin, and their lawyers were not successful as of press time.

[The author is a former employee of SEE-LA and occasionally purchased fish from Sea Fever Seafood.]

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