Posted by on October 01, 2004 at 13:45:34:
California's most celebrated mollusks should sleep a little easier - - if indeed they sleep at all -- after a Thursday morning raid by California Department of Fish and Game agents on suspected abalone poachers.
Wardens busted four San Francisco residents for illegally trafficking in red abalone, the world's largest -- and by general acclaim, most toothsome - - abalone.
Arrested were Li Sheng Chen, 52; Wu Qiang Zhang, 40; Nicole Zhang Li, 43; and Betty Ai Hang Guo, 30.
Li Sheng Chen was booked into San Francisco County jail for illegally procuring abalone to sell; Wu Qiang Zhang and Nicole Li were charged with illegally purchasing abalone and were remanded to the San Francisco County Jail.
Bail was set at $51,000 each, which was met by Nicole Li. Betty Ai Hang Guo, who was booked at the San Mateo County Jail, was also charged with the illegal purchase of abalone; information on her bail was not available.
If the four are convicted of all charges, which are misdemeanors, they could face fines of $40,000 each.
Under state law, abalone cannot be sold or bought, though they may be given away if obtained legally. They may be captured only by sport divers using no artificial breathing apparatus.
Poaching has been a serious threat to the North Coast's abalone populations for the past two decades -- and tactics have shifted since Fish and Game began targeting the illegal trade about 10 years ago.
Poachers used to take abalone by the bagful. But Fish and Game described Li Sheng Chen as the ringleader of a group of divers who traveled regularly to the Sonoma and Mendocino County coasts, obtained the legal limit of three abalone each -- and then sold them on the streets of San Francisco.
"He was apparently doing most of the selling, getting $100 an abalone," said Troy Swauger, a spokesman for Fish and Game.
Red abalone -- which can reach 12 inches in diameter and are in tremendous demand from seafood enthusiasts -- once ranged throughout California's intertidal waters. But intensive commercial fishing and depredations from sea otters led to an effective collapse of the populations on the south and central coasts.
The Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt county coasts are the last redoubt for the slow-growing gastropods, which fatten on the abundant kelp.
"In the past, you'd have guys with (scuba) tanks going out there and picking up hundreds of abs in a single trip," said Tony Warrington, the captain of Fish and Game's special operations unit, which headed the raid. "When we'd arrest the divers, we'd find freezers in their homes packed with abalone."
Aggressive field work by undercover and uniformed officers has put a crimp in the trade -- but hasn't eliminated it, Warrington said.
"It's changed," Warrington said. "The poachers have figured out they're too obvious if they're using tanks and hauling big bags onto the beach. So they're free diving like legitimate divers, and moving just a few limits at a time."
Still, said Swauger, the trade remains lucrative.
"The prices abalone are bringing make some people want to take the risk," Swauger said. "We want to ruin their day when they do."
Swauger said the district attorneys of the North Coast were solidly behind the anti-poaching efforts.
"Not just Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt, where they've always taken this pretty seriously, but in San Francisco and San Mateo counties as well," Swauger said.
Debbie Mesloh, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco district attorney, said District Attorney Kamala Harris considers poaching a serious crime.
"The commercialization of protected natural resources is a real problem, and we intend to address it," Mesloh said, adding that the illegal taking of protected species couldn't be eradicated unless the buyers as well as the sellers were prosecuted.
"This is our problem, even though we are an urban county," she said. "The North Coast counties are providing the abalone, but San Francisco is the market."
Many of the abalone poaching arrests in the Bay Area have involved Asians and Asian Americans, but Mesloh emphasized the commercialization of wildlife cuts across all racial and ethnic lines.
"You see all kinds of exploitation by all kinds of communities," she said. "This isn't anything you can tag to one group of people."
Despite some success in addressing poaching, the north state's red abalone populations are anything but robust.
"They appear to be stable at best, and in many areas they're declining," said Carrie Wilson, a Fish and Game marine biologist. "We're not seeing any significant recruitment (reproduction). There's a lack of small, young abalone out there."
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