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Black Market Abalone

Poachers Hurt Commercial Market and Are Hard To Catch
But--Rumors Aside--Not Every Bad Ab Shipped to Chinatown

louis martin
cns news & features

IN MENDOCINO COUNTY it is a Spring day that finally looks like Spring and not Winter. At the little fishing harbor on Albion river a husky dog with short brown fur plunges into the water between the shore and the floating dock where Mike Kitahara has his boat tied up.

Kitahara sits on a log on shore flexing his calf muscles, which look powerful. Kitahara is a diver. On the North Coast he dives for sea urchins; on the Central Coast he dives for abalone.

"There was a pretty big poaching problem in the late 80s," says Kitahara, "and it involved quite a few of the sea urchin boats." The dog emerges from the water and shakes himself dry.

The problem was so bad in 1989 that a group of commercial divers, Kitahara included, arranged a confidential meeting with Fish & Game to help clean up the problem.

News media had been blaming commercial divers for poaching problems, says Kitahara; the public was demanding action. One solution being considered by Fish & Game was the elimination of commercial abalone diving.

Says Kitahara, secretary of the California Abalone Association and a collected speaker, "We told Fish & Game what we knew was going on, how the poaching was going on, and who was doing it."

At the same time, Fish & Game had an undercover operation going on, and had already identified some of the violators. The result was a fair number of arrests, both of commercial and sports divers.

But the problem persists, and Kitahara says that poaching impacts his business significantly. At the beginning of the abalone sports season in April, the market for commercial abalone takes a deep dive. Wholesalers tell him openly that they don't need his abalone. That's not because the wholesalers are buying illegal abalones, but down the line illegal abalones are getting to fish markets and restaurants. "It's all the combined nickel-and-dime, black market crowd going in there and jamming up every little corner that our buyers have."

From a commercial point of view, it's frustrating. Not only is the market unpredictable, but there are periodic hints from Fish & Game that the commercial season will be closed out.

The effects of poaching were so negative in the late 80s, says Kitahara, that there was talk of violence against the poachers by a "fringe element" of the commercial industry.

Further down the dock, past a small building that looks like a processing plant, some fishermen stand and talk. They look typical of North Coast fishermen-- weathered, gnarly, independent if not cantankerous. Some have beards, others long hair, some both. They look like a fit crew for an 1850s whaling vessel. Kitahara, on the other hand, is clean-cut; he dresses in T-shirt and sunglasses and shorts. Originally from Santa Barbara, he has a southern California look about him.

Kitahara doesn't know the size of the illegal market, but he thinks it is still considerable. Poaching abalone is tempting because of the price. Legal size abalones sell for $38 a piece or $58 per pound in steaks. In contrast sea urchins sell for $1.50 per pound.

One of the biggest busts in state history came back in September of 1994. Kitahara speculates that what the poachers took amounted to about half the commercial landings for a year. Says Kitahara, "We were aware that something was happening before the bust. We had been hearing too many things from the end-use consumers--that, hey, we can buy these abalones for $10 a piece."

There is an edge of bitterness in Kitahara's voice when he talks about the situation. He likes diving for abalone. He has another boat at Pilar Point in Half Moon Bay that he uses strictly for abalone. The boat at Albion is used for urchin. Diving for abalone is also a little less work. He frequently dives at the Farallon Islands off San Francisco where few sports divers go.

An industry-sponsored program for tagging abalone has been rejected by Fish & Game. "They said they don't have the manpower to police it," says Kitahara. Industry even offered to pay for the tags.

On the south side of the narrow inlet to the harbor, the vegetation is dense and green from the Winter rains. It looks like a jungle on the steep banks. Micho, Kitahara's son, patiently occupies himself on the dock while his father spells out the agonizing affect of poaching on his way of making a living and on a resource that he cares about. Maybe it's something in his blood, because the Japanese started the abalone diving industry in California. Kitahara is third-generation Japanese-American. He has a photograph of the early operation at Dark Gulch that, according to a local history bood, was "eliminated" by the white settlers. ("They killed them," says Kitahara.) The dog, who clearly has no sense of history, barks twice, as though to say lighten up; don't take everything so seriously on such a lovely day. He runs off to join the motley crew at the far end of the dock.

POINT ARENA, Anchor Bay, Gualala, then into Sonoma County. Past Sea Ranch the coast becomes "rugged" again, the slopes steeper. Boulders bulge out of the earth; smaller rocks lie strewn across fields. In places there is the lofty steepness of Big Sur. And the poppies are out big now. Golden clusters in the sunshine compliment blue whorls of lupine. Yellow mustard dots the pale green of new grass.

Fisk Water Cove, Salt Point, Still Water Cover, Timber Cove. Places where young men going out in storms have died for abalone. Senseless young me, yes, but at least passionate young men. Places where others have poached abalone for profit. Ah, yes, the bad ones; the spoilers. Places with a history, places of "scenic beauty"--places that draw people to them for various purposes.

Up a dirt road and back in the woods near Fort Ross is a camp used by Sonoma County Fish & Game wardens when they come to the coast during abalone season. The road is well packed; the woods are mostly Douglas Fir. A couple of small cabins, and some redwood picnic tables surrounding a warming fire, make up the camp. Two pigs and two dogs wander the camp freely.

A series of low tides in May has brought 4 of Sonoma county's 5 Fish & Game wardens over to the coast. For game wardens, it is open season on poachers.

Warden Dave Bezzone was a key element in the big September bust. He clearly enjoys talking about it. Unstrapping his gun belt and laying it on the picnic bench in back of him, Bezzone says, "It started with a couple of phone calls to me just saying, hey, there's this guy hanging out at Timber Cove . . ." The caller told Bezzone the guy drove a van and seemed "out of place."

In January of 1994, the 4 wardens began doing surveillance on the guy with the van, but "didn't see anything illegal other than dope," says Bezzone. Bezzone is a 15-year Fish & Game veteran. He is tall and youthful- sounding, though his hair is growing gray; his voice has the enthusiasm of a scoutmaster, though one who has seen the darker side of camping in the woods.

But the guy's activities seemed suspicious, so Fish & Game kept an eye on him.

According to Bezzone, he was diving sometimes-- though they never saw him with any abalone--and he was sometimes just hanging out. At times he seemed to be "spinning his wheels" or walking in circles.

At the same time he was being watched, information came in that he was involved with others with past Fish & Game violations.

Bezzone observed him, off and on, from January to May of 1994. Then one day he spotted the guy tank diving. Bezzone watched as he brought a sack of abalone up to the beach and two other guys buried them among the rocks. He was arrested, divers were brought in, and more bags of abalone were discovered offshore, apparently left for night- time pickup. The guy turned informant, and that was the beginning of the end of a major abalone poaching operation on the North Coast.

Ultimately 12 individuals were arrested and charged with felony violations of Fish & Game law.

Fish & Game uses several methods to catch poachers. One is sitting and watching the sporting activity. Another is joining in, out of uniform; or actually participating as a fellow sportsman. A third method is under cover operations.

Patrol districts are large in Sonoma county. Bezzone has the entire coast plus 600 square miles of adjoining inland area. That's a lot of deer, duck, bear, boar, steelhead, salmon--in addition to abalone--for one person to protect.

Backup is plentiful today should there be trouble, but that is not usually the case for game wardens.

Says Stan De Silva, the chief warden for Sonoma County, "There's times at night you got five guys and they've all got guns and you're by yourself." Backup then would be nice, he says. But the fact is, says Paul Maurer, warden for the northern quarter of the county, you can't rely on backup when working remote areas. "No one is going to get to you in time to help you," he says.

Maurer is a 22-year Fish & Game veteran and a former county sheriff. He's tall and has slightly long grey hair and a Foo Man Choo mustache. He looks like an aging member of the Mod Squad.

Backup is normal procedure for police when dealing with possible confrontations, but for Fish & Game the reality is that it's often not available.

Says De Silva, "The important safety feature that you have in this business is your brain and your mouth. If you want, you can get a person irritated in just one sentence or two." De Silva has been with Fish & Game 30 years; before that he was a city cop in Vallejo for ten years. He speaks from experience with dealing with a lot of people.

Says Bezzone, "See, now around Stan you can't say the word 'senile'; he takes offense."

"No, I don't like that word," says De Silva.

"The S word," someone else says laughing.

Karen Longmore, the quieter of the wardens, has finished a bowl of cereal. She pours the leftovers on the ground for the pigs. One of the dogs limps over. He is a big black dog and very bony. She says his age, translated to human time, is 99 years. Paul strokes the back of one of the pigs.

It is a foggy day on the coast but there is little wind now, and a warming fire burn in a heavy drum between the tables. A large chunk of Madrone burns on the top.

Despite the risks involved, De Silva says he thinks working for Fish & Game is the best law enforcement job there is. "You're outdoors; you're contacting people and there's activity; we work out of our homes." But he says because you are on your own and you have no backup, a lot of law enforcement people would not like it. The flip side? "Every warden's his own boss," says De Silva. "I might be the supervisor, but the guys tell me more what to do than I tell them what to do."

His biggest fear? Says De Silva somewhat facetiously, "They want to cut our pay 15%." While the population of California has increased since 1965, along with the number of users of its resources, Fish & Game staffing is at the 1965 level. "My major concern as a supervisor is not having enough personnel and equipment to do the job."

"The poachers have better equipment than we do," says Bezzone.

Though the pay is not great, Bezzone says the job is nevertheless "a kick in the ass."

THE GOLDEN GATE is partially shrouded in fog, but in Chinatown it is bright and clear. There are tourists on Grant Street, but in the little fish markets the customers are all Chinese. Tourists buy trinkets and tea to take home, rarely live fish swimming around in tanks.

On the street before the markets the smell is rich, almost rank; it is a fishing harbor smell.

San Francisco's Chinatown is rumored to be the place to buy or sell illegal abalone, but at the New Hop Yick Meat Market the answer to the question is a sharp no: they do not have abalone.

At the San Francisco Hong Kong Market, the end result is the same. Outside a fishmonger in a white apron says yes, they have abalone; another white-aproned man inside seems to say yes; but "management," a young, modern- looking Chinese couple, say no and are not friendly about it.

At Man Sung fish market, the answer is also no--the type of sharp no reserved for children with annoying questions.

The biggest market on the block is the 4 Seas Supermarket on the corner of Grant and Pacific. Out in front of the market live turtles and crabs are on display, and bubbling tanks teaming with fish line the sides and the front of the market. An iced counter runs around the middle of the market, separating customers from those in white aprons.

With the coming and going of customers and the churning of the fish tanks, the atmosphere is one of great excitement in the market.


"No" is the answer.

Around the other side of the counter, another man in a white apron is asked the same question.

"No" comes the quick, almost angry answer. He is an older man whose hair has started to turn gray--it pokes up in a kind of uneven crew-cut. He is larger than the other men behind the counter--most look scrawny--and seems more in control, either by force or authority.

A man in high yellow fishermen's boots has come into the market with a barrel on a dolly. He is Caucasian. He goes to the back of the market and dumps the barrel into a tank.

He is bright eyed and friendly. Sometimes he sees abalone in the markets here, he says, but not often. At this market he says they don't really have a tank set up for it and would have to mix abalone in with something else. Gotta go, he says. Busy schedule. But he's not unfriendly.

Out in the street his partner is double-parked in a pickup truck and is scooping live fish out of a tank into the barrel.

The market is full of exotic creatures, most of them live--eels, crabs, turtles, rays, and colorful fin fish. Abalone is reputed to be a delicacy with the Chinese, but it is hard to imagine that it is the only delicacy.

At the entrance to the 4 Seas a small disheveled man in an apron stands by a box of ice with four small dark fish on top. He shouts loudly into the street. Rests. Shouts again. Are these four fish some kind of delicacy that he is advertising? Or are they just on sale? One twitches. They look bloated. A tourist comes by as the angry-looking man with the crew cut comes out to check on something. The tourist shoots a photo of the man with the box of fish and the man with the crew cut, and the latter shouts: "No photograph. Don't like photograph."

A fish slips off the ice, flops on the sidewalk in the direction of the curb. The disheveled man grabs the fish with difficulty and puts it back on the ice bucket. The man with the crew cut turns abruptly, going back inside.

Of six restaurants on or near Grant Street, only two offer the "delicacy." The 4 Seas offers abalone in a black mushroom sauce for $17.95--much higher than anything else on the menu. The Cathay House also offers it at an even higher price: $23.00.

Both of these are elegant, red carpet restaurants whose lobbies are lined with photos of well-known personalities dinning there--Mayor Jordan, Willie Brown, Pete Wilson.

Asked about local abalone, the aloof, thin-featured maitre d' of Cathay House state flatly, "We don't sell local abalone."

Sitting at a window table in mid afternoon reading a newspaper, he looks irritated by questions. Usually their abalones come from Mexico, he says. They are small, about 3 inches.

In Chinatown it is hard to distinguish between true irritation and normal, everyday annoyance with non-oriental visitors. It is the exotic product, not the grace of merchants, that draws visitors. But at several places a smile is met with a smile.

"Jennifer," round-featured and dressed in colorful silk outside the Grand Palace restaurant to lure customers inside, says she doesn't know what abalone is. She goes inside to ask and returns to say that they don't have it.

"How do you say it?" she asks.


"A-ba-lon-e," she mouths prettily.

Dressed in yellow, she looks like a Monarch butterfly.

The Great Wall, a basement restaurant on an off- street, suggests the Great East on Jackson. A sharp-featured young woman dressed in a business suit explains that they don't have it because of price. They do seem to have everything else.

The cocktail waitress at the Bow Wow Cocktail Lounge acts a little surprised that there is a problem finding abalone. It is Friday afternoon and other customers have come in now. Unlike the fish markets, everyone here seems at ease.

The cocktail waitress, who is of round features, some of them large and on display under thin black transparent material, asks a guy at the end of the bar about abalone. After conversing in Chinese for awhile, she suggests going over to Stockton Street.

She says she has some abalone herself--not "live," she says, but still fresh. "On ice." She says she likes it raw, "sushi style."

A TV at the end of the bar previews a movie; blood runs down an agonized face. Below the TV sits a heavy-set older man. He is unmoving, expressionless. The cocktail waitress purses her lips and takes a sip of whiskey from a tall thin shot glass. She plays a hand of cards with a customer.

It is crowded on Stockton Street as the dinner hour approaches. At the Hing Lung market on Stockton the answer comes quick and it's the expected one: no. At Lung Sang next door, it takes awhile to work through the crowd to the back. At last the attention of a large but intelligent- looking man is caught. And what a surprise is the answer to the usual question. Yes, they do have abalone. $11 per pound is the price.

But it is not live, says the intelligent-looking man who looks like he runs the market. It is from Chile, he says.

"Do you have local?" he is asked.

"No," he says.

"Do you ever buy local?" he is asked somewhat suggestively.

"No," he says, "bad decision." He says this with particular energy, as though it has been well thought out. He is quite emphatic.

Back up Grant, left on Broadway and out of the City, the question now pursues the one who asks: Where do all the bad abs go?

Illegal abalone may be for sale in Chinatown, as rumored. But if so, not to Caucasians, other than for a high price at a few restaurants. Maybe Chinatown has been stung before; maybe that accounts for the many sharp no's and the final pronouncement, "bad decision." Given all the other seafood on display, maybe abalone isn't that big a deal.

So where do all the bad abs go? According to Fish & Game, some of it gets mixed in with the legal stuff and is exported out of the country. Some of it goes to unscrupulous mom & pop restaurants. Some is simply sold to neighbors or is used for barter. Whatever the case, Chinatown is either steering clear of abs, or is slicker than a morray eel.

"A-ba-lon-e?" asks Madame Butterfly. Could such a smile deceive?