Posted September 7, 2007
I got a call at noon and then a cryptic email: 1800 hours, an address, and a name. By 1700 hours the temperature had dropped to only 90 degrees but the uniformed man at the foot of the dirt road was calm and smiling. He waved me through to the top of the hill, where a trailer sat amidst the brown grass and plywood targets of a shooting range. Packed into the trailer were thirty Fish & Game wardens and other law enforcement officers, talking, swatting flies and fiddling with the air conditioning. Wardens had driven for hours, travelling from all around the state. It was time to take down some poachers.
Poaching is big business, and in California it's second only to the drug trade in black market value. Sturgeon, spiny lobster, salmon, striped bass--if you don't want to catch them yourself you can find someone who'll sell it to you under the table or out of a truck. This time of year it's abalone, the big flat snail that used to cover the California coast until we ate them all. I've heard a couple of old timers refer to abalone as a "gold brick fishery": that's how valuable each ab is, and that's also about how fast they move and reproduce. Here's a short history of abalone fishing in graph form (from PFEG's data). That tail at the end is what we call "serial depletion", where you fish out one species after another, from whites to pinks to greens, until eventually all the abalone are scarce. I didn't even put pinto or flat abs on the graph because you couldn't see them.
At this point, the only healthy population of abalone left in the U.S. are the red abs north of San Francisco, and they're only available to sportfishermen who freedive for them, no SCUBA allowed. If you're eating abalone in a restaurant it could be farmed or imported, or it could be stolen.
I watch managers agonize over the hard decisions they have to make when wildlife populations are crashing. It's just pouring salt in everyone's wounds when fishermen agree not to touch the endangered green sturgeon, and conservation groups are sweating out restoring the sturgeon's rivers while poachers slaughter 30-year old fish for their caviar. So when I hear people say this isn't a 'serious crime' I want to drag them by the ear out to Fort Ross and say "This, this coast and this abalone, is why we live here. You steal from the ocean, and you steal from all of us." Take poaching personally, because they're stealing from you, too.
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