H-CENTRAL COAST

Nov 28, 2011 9:13 PM by Nancy Chen

Fish and Game wardens search for abalone poachers

Here on the Central Coast, exploring tidepools is a favorite family activity, but what happens when poachers abuse the system, hunting some animals to the point of extinction?

About 200,000 abalone are illegally taken each year off California, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.

The mollusks are popular seafood dishes worldwide and reach anywhere from five inches to a foot in diameter. They are also illegal to hunt on the Central Coast, but that doesn't stop the most serious poachers.

Low tides during the winter months provide the best chance for poachers and for law enforcement officials to track them down.

"Abalone poachers are very sophisticated," said Department of Fish and Game Warden Jason Chance. "They will go as far as pose as tourists and surfers. They'll have lookouts."

On a warm Sunday evening, his targets on this day included the Estero Bluffs, Montana de Oro and Cambria.

"It's a great habitat for abalone," he said. "You can see the rock structures. They love crevices. You can see a kelp-rich environment; their primary food is kelp."

Abalone is used in all kinds of dishes worldwide; the practice, however, is illegal south of the Golden Gate bridge.

"The sale of fish, shellfish, abalone and wildlife parts on the black market is second to the drug trade," he said. "It's a multi-billion dollar business."

If caught, the consequences are severe, and fines could range from $15,000 to $40,000.

"There's a high probability if somebody takes commercial quantities of abalone, they're going to go to jail," Chance said. "They're not going to be issued a citation."

But poachers who take the risk--and succeed--are rewarded. A large abalone reaching European or Asian countries could even go upwards of three hundred dollars each.

"One abalone can feed five to seven people in a restaurant, and you're talking probably fifty to a hundred dollars a plate," he said. "That's big money."

The Central Coast used to be rich with these mollusks, but a ban on hunting them was imposed after a major decline in the 90's.

Chance says another local product that is illegal to hunt but incredibly valuable as well is the gallbladder of a bear.

Dried out, it can go for between $15,000 to $30,000 each in Europe or Asia.

There is also an abalone farm in Cayucos, where it is legal to harvest the mollusks. Those, however, are smaller than wild abalone.

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