11 suspected abalone poachers arrested in NorCal

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Posted by Max Bottomtime on May 30, 2009 at 08:12:20:

11 suspected abalone poachers arrested in NorCal
(Published May 29, 2009)

SAN FRANCISCO Eleven suspected abalone poachers are under arrest after state game wardens watched the group catch, hide and transport the protected mollusks off the North Coast, officials said Friday.

California Department of Fish & Game wardens first noticed suspicious divers exiting waters near Caspar, south of Fort Bragg, at about 6:15 a.m. on Wednesday.

The wardens had been on alert for increased poaching in Mendocino County because the tide was unusually low, exposing areas of reef usually underwater, officials said.

Fish & Game Lt. Kathy Ponting, who runs the special operations unit, said her team drove to a spot near the suspicious divers and began surveillance. They watched the divers take abalone and place the mollusks in tall grass near the beach, she said.

"Then a large van pulled up near the dive area and we watched them load up a bunch of abalone in plastic bags into the van," Ponting said.

While the divers went back to the sea, wardens said they followed the van, pulling it over. Inside the van, Ponting said they found 50 abalone. Divers are legally allowed three abalone per day - which can fetch up to $100 each on the black market. The annual total per person is 24.

When the van did not return to the dive spot, the alleged poachers loaded a pickup, said Ponting. Again wardens followed them back to a nearby hotel. Inside the room officials found coolers loaded with abalone, most under legal size limits.

Strict controls are placed on catching abalone, prized for their flavor and scarcity, because they take a long time to develop. It can take 12 years for an abalone to grow to legal size.

The wardens found a total of 166 abalone with the group, Ponting said. State law forbids collecting abalone from the wild for sale, and anyone caught with a dozen or more are considered to possess them for commercial sale.

Despite the arrests, officials said efforts to control abalone poaching are just scratching the surface.

"We always only catch the tip of the iceberg, there is so much abalone poaching going on because of the black market," Ponting said. "We can pick almost any group and watch them poaching abalone. It's really unsettling."

The suspects were each booked on charges of felony conspiracy to harvest abalone for commercial purposes, which carries a fine of up to $40,000, said Game Warden Patrick Foy. Two vehicles also were seized along with $6,000 cash.

The status of the suspects and their names could not immediately be confirmed as the Mendocino District Attorney's Office was closed Friday.

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