To Catch a Poacher

by Tim Stelloh, July 12, 2006

Ask a recreational abalone hunter on the North Coast about poaching, and the reply is invariably tinged with scorn or frustration. Their grumblings spill into Fort Bragg's Subsurface Dive Shop, light up websites and offer clues to the Department of Fish and Game's "CalTIP" hotline.

Every once in a while, the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) gets a good tip. And every once in a while, State investigators get their collar.

That's what happened late last month, when California Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced the round up of 20 ab and sturgeon poachers from Fort Bragg, San Francisco, Sacramento and points east. The operation was christened "Operation Dos Robles" after two of Fort Bragg's finest: Lance and Leroy Robles. According to Lockyer's press release, the Robles boys hunted in a restricted zone and sold hundreds of mollusks, which can fetch $50 a piece on the black market, to two San Francisco restaurants: Bob's Sushi and China House.

While "Operation Dos Robles" has been a much-applauded endeavor, it's hardly the norm on the North Coast, where abalone poachers are as common as pot growers. In fact, most of the poachers snagged by Fish and Game are nothing like the Robles boys. They're not from the North Coast, nor are they exiled commercial divers, as Lance Robles is. Most don't sell to restaurants either. But they face the same severe fishing restrictions.

In 1949, commercial harvesting of abalone was banned in Northern California. Three years later, so was the use of scuba gear (DFG says these initial restrictions were driven by sport fisherman, not the State). In 2000, ab divers had to begin using a "punch card" so that Fish and Game could track their harvest, and in 2002 their take limit was downgraded to three abalone a day, and a maximum of 24 a year (according to Jerry Kashiwada, a Biologist with the Department of Fish and Game, in the 1970s an avid hunter on the North Coast could, theoretically, catch up to 850 abalone in one day).

Fish and Game says their restrictions are protecting the abalone — and maintaining a sustainable resource for the future. The department wants to avoid what happened down south, where a Channel Islands-based commercial fishery and scuba-clad harvesters strip-mined the ab population. In 1997, the fishery closed and a still-in-effect ban between Mexico and the Golden Gate followed.

To Fish and Game's near prohibition on the North Coast, some, of course, shout tyranny. "To say there's a shortage is total bullshit," said Frank Schneider, an ab diver who lives in Pacifica but has been diving off the Mendocino Coast for more than 20 years. "I think there's more abalone growing now because there's no commercial fishing anymore."

Despite the objections, DFG's rules are in place. And wardens hand out citations like parking tickets.

Captain Wayne Kidwell of Fish and Game estimates that between April and June — the busiest months for ab hunters — the Fort Bragg office issued between 450 and 500 citations along the Mendocino Coast. He says that over the 17 years he's worked out of Fort Bragg, he's seen "a slow, steady increase" of poachers from the Bay Area. The majority of these citations, according to Kidwell, went to ab harvesters who didn't fill out their punch cards correctly. "Most of the time they know how to fill it out," he said. "But they just don't think they're going to get checked."

There's also a tendency to "overlimit," or to take more than three a day, and to harvest abs that are smaller than the legal harvesting size — seven inches.

Many of these poachers end up in Fort Bragg's Ten Mile Court to pay their $700 fines. And many, says Assistant District Attorney (for the Coast) Tim Stoen, need interpreters. "They're Korean, Cantonese or Mandarin," he said. "They don't know what the licenses are."

While there's a tendency to blame the poaching problem on the "Asians from Oakland," that analysis is incorrect, according to Kidwell. He says that the guys doing it commercially — like the Robles brothers — bear just as much responsibility as the droves of Bay Area immigrants who drive north for their catch (which, more often than not, is for family or individual consumption). "Somebody doing it commercially will do more damage," he said, "but the large number of people coming up also causes a tremendous amount of damage."

Take, for instance, the infamous case of Curt Ward and Joshua Holt, two licensed sea urchin divers who made a grossly overlimit catch a few miles north of Elk. When wardens raided their fish hold, they found 468 abalone. The profit for them would have been immense: A sea urchin can fetch as low as 25¢ a pound. Red abs, of course, are worth much more.

Or take Lance Robles, the elder brother, and more accomplished family poacher. If convicted (both brothers plead not guilty on July 5), this will be his second trip to the pokey for illicit harvesting — and his third poaching-related bust. He was caught in 1996 and sentenced to a year in Sonoma County Jail for poaching 46 abalone, and was arrested earlier this year with his buddy, Marty Holloway — who was also arrested in Lockyer's bust — in Navarro with 26 abalone. For unknown reasons, the County dropped those charges.

The problem, according to Kidwell, is that these commercial busts are few and far between. His office makes a handful of arrests each year, he says, but DFG doesn't have the manpower to patrol the often-sophisticated operations of commercial poachers. At the moment, he says, there are only three DFG wardens stationed on the Mendocino Coast's 131-mile shore, and there are 60 unfilled warden jobs around the state. "They can make more money working for CHP or the Sheriff's office," he said. "We only hire ten people per year for the whole state."

The result is what Mendo ab lovers most often see — or hear about. Roadblocks and checkpoints, and immigrants poaching their precious mollusk.

Yet the Robles of the Coast are just as responsible. And the smart ones are a hell of a lot harder to catch.

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