Poaching threatens abalone population

San Francisco — A rash of abalone poaching in Northern California combined with a huge increase in legally harvested mollusks has left so few of the delicacies clinging to the rocks that the population could be in jeopardy, state game wardens say.

Dozens of citations and arrests have been made along the Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino county coastlines over the past three months during a poaching crackdown by the California Department of Fish and Game and other law enforcement agencies.

The illegal gluttony is particularly troubling when one considers that the number of legally harvested abalone has doubled in both Sonoma and Mendocino counties over the past two years, officials said. The shoreline scramble for the big sea snails is so voracious that it could lead to the species’ demise, fish and game wardens said.

“Despite our cooperative efforts, the abalone resource is struggling,” said Nancy Foley, fish and game’s chief of law enforcement. “Abalone are being harvested from the two counties — via both legal and illegal means — at an unsustainable rate.”

More than 700 vehicles were stopped at checkpoints near abalone hotspots in Sonoma and Mendocino counties in May and June. Authorities issued 57 citations and seized 84 abalones in Sonoma County. In Mendocino County, they gave out 41 citations and confiscated 85 abalones.

Two weekends ago, National Park Service rangers busted six people who illegally collected 17 abalones at Tomales Point during low tide.

The commercial harvest of wild abalone has been banned in California since 1997. There are size requirements and limits on the number of abalones recreational divers and collectors may take. The use of scuba gear is also prohibited.

The fine for a first offense is usually in the $1,000 range, but repeat offenders can be convicted of felonies and sentenced to jail. The problem, wardens say, is that a single abalone can fetch $100 on the black market, so the poachers keep coming back.

“It is a big deal,” said Spencer Brady, the chief deputy district attorney for Sonoma County. “People are aware of” the seriousness of abalone poaching. “Juries don’t like it.”

Red abalone can be legally harvested in California for personal consumption as long as the harvester tags and documents that each abalone is the appropriate size using a special punch card.

About 50,000 red abalones were legally taken off Fort Ross in Sonoma County in 2009 and 60,000 were taken at Fort Ross Reef, said Patrick Foy, a California game warden. Those numbers, he said, are double the amount harvested in the same areas in 2007.

Foy said periodic checkpoints screening the harvests of licensed abalone divers have, on average, found that about 10 percent of the abalones that were supposedly legal violated some aspect of state law, including size requirements and limits on the number taken by an individual.

“The percentage of the actual number of violations we catch is impossible to document, but it is pretty low,” Foy said. “We are stretched very, very thin, and there is no relief in sight.”

There are about 100 fewer state fish and game wardens than there were in 2001. The 230 or so California wardens cover 1,100 miles of coastline and protect wildlife 200 miles out to sea. It is the lowest per capita number of wardens in the U.S., Foy said.

With California facing a $19 billion budget deficit, the situation is not expected to improve.

Abalone poaching has been a major problem for a long time. In 2009, 11 people were arrested and 120 citations were issued in Sonoma and Mendocino counties after an elaborate ring of abalone poachers with headquarters in a hotel room was discovered. That same year, two people were arrested in Monterey County after they were caught with 51 rare black abalones, a federally listed endangered species.

“We’re very concerned about the long-term sustainability of the abalone resource,” Foy said. “One of the defendants in our latest sweep was on probation for the same offense, so whatever he was fined and whatever jail time he got the first time wasn’t enough for him to stop poaching. At this rate, the abalone may not be able to replace themselves fast enough to keep up with the harvest.”