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(SACRAMENTO) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer today announced the arrest of three Mendocino County men for repeatedly poaching abalone, a seafood delicacy severely threatened from decades of over-fishing, from an off-limits section of Fort Bragg coastline and selling the illegal catches to San Francisco restaurants.
“Abalone was once considered an abundant resource, but it has declined to alarmingly low levels. Action is needed to prevent the northern California red abalone fishery from joining those fisheries that have already collapsed,” said Lockyer. “Poaching is a main contributor to the demise of this resource, and restaurants that are purchasing illegally caught abalone are also responsible. We cannot allow lawbreakers to bring this valuable species to ruin. That is why I will criminally prosecute poachers, and the restaurateurs that buy from them, to the fullest extent of the law.”
Lance Anthony Robles, 43, of Ft. Bragg, was arrested in Albion and is being held at the Mendocino County Jail on $50,000 bail. Robles, who sold his illegal “take” to the China House Restaurant on Powell Street in San Francisco, was previously arrested and convicted twice in the last 10 years for the same violations. Marty Linn Holloway, 44, of Beaver Marsh, Oregon, was arrested in Oregon and is in custody in Klamath Falls on $50,000 bail. Both were charged with two felony counts of conspiracy to harvest abalone from a closed area and sell it commercially, as well as misdemeanors for illegally catching and selling abalone. They were also charged with one felony count of possessing a controlled substance. Both men were previously arrested in April after being caught with 26 abalone.
Also arrested was Leroy Nicolas Robles, Jr., 41, of Ft. Bragg. Robles, who sold abalone to Bob’s Sushi on Bay Street in San Francisco, was arrested in Fort Bragg and is being held at the Mendocino County Jail on $50,000 bail. Robles was charged with two felonies and one misdemeanor.
Today’s arrests by Department of Fish and Game (DFG) wardens stem from tips left on DFG’s “CALTIP” hotline. The anonymous tips reported that Lance Robles and Leroy Robles were diving for abalone from behind a rental house in the Fort Bragg area, an area that is designated off-limits to commercial harvest. The tips also claimed both Robles were exceeding the sport abalone limit and illegally selling their catch -- up to 100 abalone at a time -- to restaurants in San Francisco.
The Mendocino arrests were part of one of the most extensive sturgeon and abalone poaching busts in California history. The operation, which targeted 20 people, involved multiple District Attorneys and 29 teams of wardens deployed in the Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Hayward, Ft. Bragg, and Mission Viejo areas.
California law limits recreational abalone catches to three at a given time, with an annual limit of 24. Anyone with more than 12 individual abalone is regarded as possessing for commercial purposes. Commercial abalone fishing is not permitted in California, and the supply to restaurants comes mainly from farmed operations. It is also illegal to purchase wild abalone. Violation of the law is a misdemeanor and punishable by a maximum of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
Once so abundant their disappearance was unimaginable, the abalone that supported huge commercial and sport fisheries 30 years ago are now on the brink of extinction, according the U.S. Department of Geological Survey. Abalone are easily overfished because their reproductive process is slow and infrequent. Successful reproduction is dependent on large populations and certain ocean conditions, which occur only every 7 to 15 years. Abalone are “local,” and a small fishery can take decades to recover from collapse.
Commercial abalone harvesting in northern California was banned in 1949 and in Central and Southern California in 1997. No scuba gear is permitted to take abalone. Sport harvesters may use skin-diving gear (breath-holding only) or practice what is commonly referred to as "rock-picking," when the abalone may be found exposed during extreme low tide periods. This ensures that enough abalone will have refuge in deeper water to replenish and provide a sustainable fishery.
The north coast has one of the last viable populations of red abalone in the world. Continued poaching of abalone has put great pressure on the resource.
This is the latest prosecution by Lockyer’s Environmental Crimes Unit. Lockyer formed the unit to hold accountable those who commit environmental crimes by prosecuting them both civilly and criminally.
Those who would like to report a tip about potential poaching of fish or wildlife can call 1-888-DFG-CALTIP. Consumers can get a list of environmentally sustainable seafood choices by downloading a pocket card from the Monterey Bay Aquarium at http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp . The guide recommends eating only farmed abalone.