Abalone poachers sent to prison

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Posted by on July 01, 2004 at 12:27:04:

Judge gives fishermen 2 years behind bars and lifetime ban on fishing
July 1, 2004

A Mendocino County judge on Wednesday forever banned two Southern California men from fishing, seized their boat and sent them to prison for being caught with the largest single illegal abalone haul in California in 15 years.

Judge David Nelson told the men he was sending them to prison "to let others know this is not something they should do."

Kurt Allen Ward, 43, and Joshua Holt, 34, both commercial fishermen from San Ysidro, were each sentenced to two years in prison. Ward's boat and fishing gear were forfeited and he was fined $40,000. Holt was fined $20,000. Neither man can fish again, either commercially or for recreation.

State Fish and Game officials arrested the men with 468 red abalone May 20 when they landed Ward's urchin boat, "Blind Strike," at the Albion River Campground.

Under state law, a person can harvest no more than three abalone a day and 24 a year.

The May 20 harvest was worth about $23,000 on the black market, said Fish and Game Lt. Kathy Ponting.

The men admitted they planned to sell the abalone in Mexico, which they'd done in the past, she said.

Ward, a former Mendocino County resident and third-generation fisherman, apologized for breaking the law but told Nelson the sentence was too harsh for the crime.

"It's not fair to my family," he said, angrily interrupting Nelson during his sentencing.

Ward also contended regulators have overstated the dangers to abalone populations.

"There's a lot more abs than they're telling the public," he said.

Ponting, however, described the fishery as fragile and in need of protection.

As a result, restrictions on abalone harvesting have been gradually increasing over the years, she said. All commercial abalone fishing is now banned in California, as is all harvesting south of San Francisco. Harvesting also is limited to waters less than 25 feet deep.

Ward and Holt were harvesting abalone at depths of around 50 feet, said Mendocino County Deputy District Attorney Mark Kalina. Investigators believe the men used a "hookah" rig with an air compressor on the boat to pump air into their dive masks, another violation of the law. The men dove in an area thick with large abalone, too far underwater and too far from shore for snorkeling sport divers to reach.

Several dozen abalone enthusiasts wrote letters to the court urging Nelson to impose a strict sentence that would send a message to other poachers.

"The county feels strongly about its abalone resource," Nelson said.

Ward and Holt faced a maximum three-year prison term after pleading guilty last month to felony conspiracy to take abalone for commercial purposes and a misdemeanor charge of taking more than the limit.

The taking of abalone is only a misdemeanor, no matter how many gastropods are taken, Fish and Game Warden Dennis McKiver said after the sentencing.

Abalone poaching by itself carries a maximum sentence of one year in the county jail, he said.

That's no deterrent, given how much abalone are worth on the black market, McKiver said. The prized mollusks are worth $50 each, Ponting said.

Ponting said there have been efforts to get legislators to increase the sentences for abalone poaching, but they've been unsuccessful.

While the May bust was big, Fish and Game officials have seen bigger. Fifteen years ago, investigators intercepted a haul of around 600 abalone in a sting operation, McKiver said.

There also have been a number of serial poaching arrests involving far more abalone. They include a Bay Area poaching ring that was busted in 2000. Its members were suspected of taking as many as 1,000 abalone a month from the Mendocino Coast for six years.

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