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Jonathan Nelson, left, a fisheries biologist, and Patrick Foy was one of the two divers who demonstrated how they search for Zebra and Quagga mussels, which are invasive shellfish believed to pose an environmental threat to area freshwater reservoirs and can clog water pumps and pipelines. (Pauline Lubens/Mercury News File)

PLEASANTON -- A word of warning for Craigslist posters and social media aficionados hoping to hawk or show off their exotic species, California Fish and Game is watching.

In an effort to protect the state's ecosystems, the agency's game wardens routinely troll the waters of Craigslist and other social media for everything from Bengal tigers to ferrets.

"People call our headquarters and say 'I spotted this on Craigslist and say 'I thought this was illegal,'" said Patrick Foy, who has been with Fish and Game for the past 16 years, including the past six as a warden. "We might contact a seller and say we are interested and make the buy and then bust them like they do with drug dealers."

Foy is one of 350 sworn game wardens and has encountered everything from a drug dealer's pet tiger to a guy who posted a picture of himself on Facebook posing with his pet fox.

Wardens say a Livermore man was one of the agency's latest online hauls -- busted on suspicion of illegal possession of an alligator gar, spotted gar and two bowfin fish.

Jared Heald, 30. is due in superior court in Pleasanton on Tuesday to enter a plea on three misdemeanor charges for illegal possession of a species.

According to court records, Heald was arrested Aug. 31, 2011 after Fish and Game answered a Craigslist ad he posted advertising a fish tank for sale.


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A warden responded and asked about the fish pictured in the tank. After several communications, including one in which Heald asked a warden via a text message to send him a picture of the tank he would use to house the fish and wrote "I don't want you to to show up and be Department of Fish and Game. I usually try to get proof that the people I deal with also keep these types of fish."

The warden and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent showed up at Heald's home and made the buy and cited Heald on three misdemeanors for illegal possession of a species.

If found guilty, Heald could face a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail for each count, said Foy.

Alligator gar are one of the largest freshwater fish in North America and can grow to over nine feet, weigh in excess of 350 pounds and call the waters near the Gulf of Mexico and southeast U.S. home, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Department of Fish and Game has a lengthy list of species that are illegal to import, transport, possess or release alive in the state because of the affect they could have on the state's ecosystem.

Wardens say the fish Heald had pose a particular danger to the Delta because they are large predatory fish that would do well in the area as well as in the lower rivers, Peter Moyle, a fish biologist at UC Davis, said in an email. He specializes in invasive species.

"Once established, they could devastate salmon populations as novel predators, unlike any the native fish have experienced before in their evolution," wrote Boyle.. "It is similar to the problem with northern pike, which (Fish andGame) just spent a few millon dollars trying to eradicate."

Northern pike were first detected in Lake Davis, which about five hours northeast of the Bay Area, in 1994. Since hten, Fish and Game has spent millions trying to wipe them out.

Foy said California has some of the most restrictive regulations in the country and pointed to states like Florida that have lax regulations and where pythons have wiped out raccoons and deer in some locations.

"Those are place where a lack of regulation has lead to ecological disasters," Foy said. "Our wardens work situations daily and never have a shortage of Craigslist (ads) going out."

Contact Robert Jordan at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/robjordan127.