abalone poaching in Canada

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Posted by on October 19, 2005 at 20:38:14:

In the wake of abalone poachers
Lucrative black market is driving wave of mollusk harvesting along West Coast

VANCOUVER -- Whenever Laurie Convey hears about an abalone poaching case on the West Coast, she can't help but shudder.

"It's terrible," she says of a crime against nature that is pushing one of Canada's threatened species steadily closer to extinction.

"It's a double detriment because not only do poachers remove abalone directly from the environment, but the ones they leave behind are often so widely separated they aren't able to successfully spawn."

The latest poaching case came just last week when John Albert Franks, of Ahousat on Vancouver Island, was fined $35,000 after pleading guilty to illegal possession of 196 abalone.

Earlier this year, David McGuire and his cousin Michael McGuire were fined $60,000, banned from diving and ordered to forfeit boats, trucks and diving gear after being caught with 449 abalone.

Despite such significant fines, the cases keep coming, driven by a lucrative black market for a species that becomes more valuable the rarer it gets.

Investigators say poachers are paid $25 a pound, but the price doubles as the abalone is passed from wholesaler to fish broker and is raised again before reaching the end consumer.

Abalone are slow-growing mollusks whose rich flesh comes wrapped in one of the loveliest shells in the sea, with purple, green or orange markings on the outer case and a glistening, mother-of-pearl inner surface.

As a resource management biologist for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, a big part of Ms. Convey's job is to save that beautiful shellfish from disappearing from the British Columbia coast, where it once lived in abundance on shallow reefs, supporting a lucrative commercial fishery.

After a massive stock collapse in which abalone populations fell 75 per cent between 1978 and 1984, the government in 1990 banned harvesting.

That was supposed to trigger a rebound, but it didn't happen. Stocks of the mollusk have continued to fall.

"We thought the population would recover," Ms. Convey said. "But the trend is still downwards. At the index sites [where population is monitored], 70 per cent now have no abalone. . . . Densities are getting to critical levels."

She said Johnstone Strait, a rich marine environment that stretches 113 kilometres along the northeast shore of Vancouver Island, has virtually been wiped clean of abalone, and other areas are also in bad shape.

Ms. Convey said biologists don't have much doubt about what's gone wrong.

"The abalone recovery team has deemed illegal harvesting to be the biggest single threat [to species survival]," she said.

Some public docks are starting to display red-and-black signs urging people to watch for abalone poachers and to call a 1-800 number to turn them in.

Bryan Jubinville, head of special investigations for the DFO, said tips from the public have played an important role in enforcement.

Over the past several years, Mr. Jubinville's team has made some major busts, catching poachers with up to 1,000 abalone at a time stuffed in nylon mesh bags.

Mr. Jubinville described an enforcement effort that -- with its covert observation teams, special abalone-sniffing dogs and late-night stakeouts -- sounded a lot like a police drug-busting operation.

"There are a lot of similarities," he said.

"These guys will run their boats along the coast at high speed, with all their lights off, in the dead of night. They will dive alone in remote locations. They will go out in some pretty nasty weather. And they do drops at isolated spots on the coast, then come back later in a vehicle to make the pickup."

In one recent bust -- in which a DFO truck was rammed in an escape bid -- Mr. Jubinville's team took down the McGuire cousins, who they had suspected for years.

"When we searched [David] McGuire's home, we found charts from all over the B.C. coast," Mr. Jubinville said.

Based on statements Mr. McGuire gave, investigators concluded he may have been taking 3,000 to 4,000 abalone a year.

Last January, investigators arrested the McGuires as they were returning from reefs in the Sooke area, near Victoria, with bags full of abalone.

"We knew they were out on the water. We had our own boats out. We had vehicles along the coast. We were fortunate to get them."

Mr. Jubinville said the McGuire bust led to the convictions of two abalone buyers -- Richard Du and Joseph Ho -- and has produced other tips that are still being followed up.

While the McGuire arrest is good news for abalone, investigators don't expect one case to stop the poaching problem.

"We would not be so naive as to assume there aren't others out there like him," Mr. Jubinville said.

A reminder of that came yesterday, when Bob MacDonald, a federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans officer in Victoria, took his specially trained abalone-sniffing German shepherd, Chrissie, on a B.C. ferry.

"The dog went nuts on the back of a truck we suspected," Mr. MacDonald said. The tote boxes were empty, but Chrissy's reaction told him abalone had been there recently.

"We heated him up. So we know he's active. Maybe next time," Mr. MacDonald said.

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