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Courtesy dept. fish and game
Poacher's Harvest: Department of Fish and Game warden Gary Combes is shown with an illegal catch of 450 abalone found hidden in a boat.

Ab Pirates

With poachers stealing an estimated 250,000 red abalone a year, will populations north of the Golden Gate disappear?

By Alastair Bland

April is here, and for those who move like a snail, go wonderfully with butter in a hot skillet and can be legally harvested through November, abalone season is not the highlight of the calendar.

But for the nearly 40,000 recreational divers in California who pursue the big snails, spring, summer and fall are among the holiest times of the year. Along our craggy, kelpy North Coast thrives the most tenacious population of red abalone anywhere in the animal's West Coast range.

The creature's presence fuels many a road trip each season; economic stimulus in otherwise sleepy towns; its own festival in Mendocino each October; and one of the state's most important recreational fisheries. The largest species of abalone in the world, Haliotis rufescens lives alongside six other species of Haliotis. The red abalone, though, is highly attractive for both its abundance and its high meat-to-shell weight ratio. It is also the only one that can be legally taken today.

The red abalone occurs naturally from Oregon to Baja California, from the tide pools to depths of more than a hundred feet. The good news is that, by many accounts, numbers seem to be holding relatively steady north of Marin. The bad news? Poaching is almost out of control. Department of Fish and Game (DFG) authorities estimate that only one lawless diver in 20 is apprehended, and the illegal harvest each year accounts for an estimated quarter-million abalone, making the total annual take somewhere around half a million individuals, which may or may not be a sustainable level. No one yet knows for sure.

Curiously, one of the greater threats to the fishery, say many law-abiding divers, could be restrictions on the recreational harvest. Shrinking legal bag limits and yearly quotas as well as the looming Marine Life Protection Act may eventually discourage legal divers, leaving the lonesome North Coast an unguarded poacher playground.  

Today, abalone are entirely protected south of the Golden Gate Bridge, and there is almost no poaching because there are almost no abalone. On the North Coast, though, the official season begins on April 1 and runs through November, with July a month of hiatus. During the seven months of harvest, throngs of divers overtake Salt Point State Park and regions beyond. Holding their breath without scuba gear, as the law requires, these divers pry thousands of abalone from subsurface rocks while generating some $14 million annually into seaside communities, where they rent gear, buy lunch and fill up on gas.

The abalone limit is strictly enforced at three per day per person, and 24 per year, with a minimum size limit of seven inches across the shell. Divers are required by law to document their catch on state-issued punch cards and return the slips at the season's end. For 2006, DFG records show a total tally of more than 264,000 red abalone harvested. The previous year, divers took 235,000. Prior to 2002, when the limit was four per day and 100 per year, divers harvested over 700,000 per year.

Wildlife Crimes Pay

Poaching is more difficult to get an accurate handle on. Most poachers sell their "abs" door to door, to friends and to neighbors. Most avoid the restaurant circuit, as paper trails, secret informants and occasional inspections make doing business at licensed establishments risky. The price of a single abalone runs almost $100. For many people, the potential monetary gain of selling a few dozen abalone outweighs the prospect of getting caught, which may result in several thousand dollars in fines and perhaps a month in jail; the higher end of the court system is known for being rather gentle on poachers. 

"We just don't feel that the punishments that poachers receive are strong enough," says Steve Martarano, spokesman for the DFG. "We'd like to get it up to a felony or felony conspiracy when there are two or more people involved, but now it's a misdemeanor in most cases. We can recommend a charge after we make a bust, but it's ultimately up to the DA, and they've often got other priorities than wildlife crimes. They might see a guy who had six abalone and say, 'Big deal.'"

There is every reason to take poaching seriously. Since 1997, state law has protected the species from any and all take south of the Golden Gate Bridge, but the slow-growing creatures, which may take over 12 years to reach the minimum size limit, have yet to rebound.

A quick, amateur survey of the seafloor anywhere south of Marin County will reveal the devastation that overharvesting can wreak upon abalone populations. Just a few decades ago, the animals littered the bottom, spilling out of crevices and sprawling over the tidal zones, and robust commercial and recreational industries thrived. Today, from the Golden Gate Bridge south, to see a large red abalone, even 30 feet under water, is a rare occasion. The big snails have declined at the hands of divers and sea otters, though small pockets of productivity in the Channel Islands host above-average densities.

Otters & Scattershot

Abalone may never recover in some regions. According to DFG senior biologist Ian Taniguchi, because of the presence of sea otters along the Central Coast, abalone diving there is likely a figment of the past.

"We have essentially no hopes for seeing a fishery within range of the sea otter. Wherever there are otters, they pretty much preclude any harvest of shellfish by humans."

The predators' numbers have steadily climbed since fur hunters nearly wiped them out in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they keep abalone at very low numbers between the Big Sur and San Mateo coasts. In 1987, the state began a relocation effort of sea otters to the Channel Islands, then halted the plan in 1990 due in part to fishermen's arguments that the mammals would crush the recovering abalone population. The cause for concern is valid.

A 1994 report revealed that the red abalone population on parts of the Central Coast crashed by 84 percent within six years of sea otters' reappearance in the area. The abalone density eventually stabilized as a furtive crevice-dwelling population just 7 percent of the estimated 1965 population. Along the North Coast, the sea otter has never recovered after the fur-trade slaughter, and the dense numbers of abalone that we see today, says Taniguchi, represent an artificial situation.

In southern regions, a major impediment to the recovery of red abalone is the inefficient nature of their reproduction. Abalone are "broadcast spawners," meaning that males and females send out respective clouds of sperm and eggs. Biologists have determined that if abalone live at too low a density, their clouds of spawn will often dissipate into the blue before any eggs are fertilized, and the DFG considers 2,000 abalone per hectare to be the "minimum viable population" size. At numbers below this critical mass, reproduction success tails off dramatically.

ARM & Abs

The total population of red abalone is uncalculated, though periodic surveys provide snapshots of the creature's health. Department of Fish and Game associate biologist Jerry Kashiwada says that he and several other state scuba divers survey eight "index sites" in Sonoma and Mendocino counties every few years.

Per site, the biologists scan 36 seafloor transects of 30 meters by 2 meters, and the density of snail per square meter has not dropped measurably over time, even in popular dive spots. The population seems to be holding at approximately 0.7 per square meter, or 7,000 per hectare, though Kashiwada has seen isolated spots where the animals are packed 10 to the square meter. Meanwhile, the DFG considers 6,600 red abalone per hectare to compose a "minimum sustainable fishery" density. 

At San Miguel Island off of Santa Barbara, local surveys have tallied up abalone densities at just 1,000 to 1,600 per hectare, far less than the optimum critical mass. Yet a growing number of voices, mostly commercial urchin divers and former commercial abalone divers, are arguing for reopening a limited commercial harvest. Milo Vukovich, president of the Sonoma County Abalone Network (SCAN), a nonprofit founded in 1995 which dedicates itself to the preservation and restoration of abalone populations, thinks the idea is preposterous.

"The Abalone Recovery Management Plan is supposed to be about the recovery of abalone, not about finding isolated, struggling populations and deciding how to fish them," Vukovich says.

The "ARM Plan" was implemented in 1997 as part of a statewide overhaul of abalone harvest regulations, most notably the complete shutdown of the fishery south of the Golden Gate Bridge. The plan stipulates that any once-decimated population must achieve the critical 6,600-abalone-per-hectare density if fishing is to take place.

"They're ignoring the rules we agreed on," Vukovich charges. "They're treating San Miguel Island like it's another country and not part of California." 

The fishery in Southern California is absolutely devastated, he says. Once bearing 86 percent of all the red abalone in California, waters south of Marin now have almost none, while the North Coast's abalone population, which seems relatively huge today, represents just 14 percent of the state's historical total.

Eyeballs in the Water

On the North Coast, the presence of the law and the absence of the sea otter, though unfortunate by some considerations, may ensure that the red abalone never dwindles. Wardens and park rangers patrol the coast at almost all hours throughout the season, spying on divers in the water with binoculars, watching from the bushes, waiting in parking lots to check those returning to their cars and conducting periodic Highway 1 checks of all passing vehicles.

But laws are only as efficient as those who enforce them, and on the North Coast, authorities are few. California has the lowest per-capita number of wardens of all 50 states, with one authority for every 185,000 residents. The odds may seem hopeless, and indeed, most poaching goes unseen.

The occasional highly publicized case serves as a reminder of the trouble that can ensue when a diver is caught red-handed. In May 2004, Kurt Ward and Joshua Holt were busted by the DFG's Special Operations Unit, a force of eight officers who watch for large-scale poaching rings. According to Lt. Kathy Ponting, leader of the unit, wardens searched the boat of the two Southern California commercial urchin divers after receiving a tip, and found 468 red abalone below deck.

Holt eventually received two years in state prison. Ward received three years. They were fined $10,000 and $15,000, respectively. Ward's boat was impounded, and the two fledgling entrepreneurs were permanently barred from fishing ever again, commercially or recreationally, in California waters. The abalone were too far gone to survive, says Ponting, and wardens donated them to a food bank, a common course of action in the wake of poaching busts if the abalone clearly won't survive replacement in the water.

But many law-abiding divers (many of whom have entered the poaching informant hotline 888-DFG-CALTIP into their cell phones) have complained that wardens unjustly cite them for the most trivial infractions, and a fine can run $1,000 or more for a single charge. These divers point out that there is a huge difference between one who actively poaches and one who accidentally neglects to follow a fine-print stipulation in the DFG's ocean sportfishing regulations handbook.

"Ben," a firefighter and part-time dive-shop attendant at Bodega Bay Pro Dive who doesn't want his real name used, recounts a time two years ago at Fort Ross when he and three friends emerged from the water with limits of legal-sized abalone. On the beach was another foursome with "at least 70 or 80 abalone," many undersized, he says. Ben and his friends jumped into their car and hurried up the road. They quickly flagged down a ranger and reported what they saw.

"He said, 'OK, but did you guys fill out your punch cards?'" Ben recalls. Punch cards are supposed to be filled out before one lays a finger on one's automobile and must note the date, time, location of the dive and how many abs were grabbed. "But we hadn't because we'd gone looking for him. So he pulled us over and made us take out all our gear and had us there for two hours, and while he was searching us the other guys came up the road."

The poachers were never apprehended.

President of SCAN Milo Vukovich concedes that rangers and wardens sometimes act inexplicably, though the greatest blame goes to the poorly written regulations handbook, which is notorious for being ambiguous and open to free interpretation. The most egregious sections are those that muse upon where and when divers must fill out their punch cards. Vukovich says that the DFG and SCAN cleared up all vagaries this winter, but for several years it was uncertain whether divers must fill out their documents on the beach, in the parking lot outside the car or while still in the water, clinging to a boogie board with numb hands, floundering in the waves.

Crawling with Cash

Big-time poaching is less of a problem today than a decade ago, officials say. Before 2000, there was no punch card, and taking a limit of abalone twice or more in a single day was relatively easy. Ponting recalls Operation Red Hat, in which she and several other wardens closely surveyed a team of nine people for three weeks as the gang made daily trips from Oakland up to Mendocino, took their legal limits of four abalone each, drove home, sold their catch, switched cars, swapped diving gear and returned for another round of limits. When the Special Operations Unit decided they had the evidence to nail the group on felony conspiracy charges, they swooped in and made arrests. Several received a year in jail, the two cars were confiscated and personal fines ranged from $2,500 to $12,500. 

Ponting says it can be troubling to watch one small group impact the resource so heavily, but allowing the suspects to build up their own case of evidence against themselves is often necessary.

"Other times, we take people down sooner than we want to if we think they're damaging the resource too much. It's a fine line, deciding when we finally go in and arrest them. If we can get the bigger picture really quickly and get a firm idea of all their commercial ties and who's involved, then we won't wait as long."

Even with staunch guardians as Ponting and her team, the North Coast represents a lonesome, almost uninhabited poacher's haven crawling with cash potential. Many lawbreakers are arrested every year and fined or jailed, but the regularity of repeat offenders is a discouraging syndrome.

Just one example: In January, Mark Fresquez, a Redwood City resident, was nailed for the third time in less than one year for poaching abalone. The first time, he was found at Fort Ross with seven abs. He received a fine and three years of probation. The second time, he was found in the company of another diver, and together they had landed 38 abalone. Fresquez served 30 days after being convicted of a misdemeanor. On the most recent bust, Ponting herself caught Fresquez with 11 abalone, and she is confident that they have a good case against the defendant this time.

Fresquez, who will be arraigned April 7, may lose his fishing license privileges for life, but to think that this restriction will affect such a fearless poacher seems optimistic. Higher fines and longer prison sentences are more likely the answer. Legislation last year increased abalone poaching fines by approximately 20 percent, but a proposal to make basic abalone poaching a felony was rejected; there are so many repeat offenders in this line of work that state prisons would soon be swamped with lifers, put away for good by the "three strikes" law, and the prison system can't afford such an influx. 

"It's kind of bleak," says Vukovich. "If you poach every day and make thousands of dollars and you're part of a poaching gang, then paying a $5,000 fine just becomes an expense of the job. There's so much incentive that some of these guys just won't quit, and with so little enforcement, I don't see any way to stop it."

Curbing the Catch

According to a 2005 DFG report, the half-million or so total abalone taken each year along the North Coast is a figure ominously close to the harvest levels that destroyed the Southern California fishery last century. To curb the catch, the DFG has been doing the easiest thing there is: cinching the noose on the legal harvest. Bag limits have dropped from 10 per day to seven to four to three, and from 100 per year to 24. But poaching remains a problem, and the reduction of legal limits may only facilitate the illegal take by discouraging law-abiders from ab diving anymore. For each such retired diver, there is one less guardian watching the resource, making the North Coast waters that much easier to pillage.

"At the rate they're restricting things, there'll end up being a lot fewer eyeballs on the water," says Vukovich. "They could eventually be shutting down a fishery to accommodate poaching."

Most of the six other abalone species in California waters are all in dire shape compared to the red, and none is legal to harvest anymore. The black abalone fishery closed in 1993. Pink, green and white abalone received full protection in 1996. A year later, red abalone diving south of the Golden Gate Bridge was banned. Now the Marine Life Protection Act is sweeping the state's waters, and the North Coast will see some closures. Few divers, though, feel that the reserves will benefit abalone.

"As far as I can see, the closures won't do much good," says dive-shop owner Tom Stone of the Sonoma Coast Bamboo Reef in Rohnert Park. "The preserves might have more abs, but they don't swim very far, and you're just going to have the legal spots become more impacted."

Vukovich holds the same opinion.

"You're going to have fewer access points, and that will concentrate 40,000 divers into half the area."

Surprisingly perhaps, most conversations with abalone divers end optimistically. While the odd cove has been "strip-mined" by poachers, most dive sites that crawled with abalone 30 years ago still crawl with them today. Most of the abs are seven-inchers, but a few are 10 and 11. Among them are the youths, grazing on algae, maturing slowly and hiding in crevices from the sea otters that may never arrive. Though the animals are frequently reported in Sonoma and Mendocino waters, most are just river otters on holiday at the beach.

Meanwhile, the most powerful protection abalone enjoy is not necessarily the officers who patrol the North Coast, but the isolated nature of the North Coast itself. And by far and away the best friends that abalone have are not the lawmakers who protect them or the activists who seek to halt legal diving, but the legal divers themselves.

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