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Extensive operation nets 17 arrests for poaching, selling abalone and sturgeon

By James Lanaras, Bay City News Service

June 30, 2006

Two Mendocino County men are among 17 who were arrested this week for allegedly poaching abalone and sturgeon and selling the seafood delicacies to San Francisco restaurants, two state agencies reported Thursday.

The Department of Fish and Game and the Attorney General's office reported that 20 alleged poachers were targeted for arrest in one of the most extensive sturgeon and abalone busts in California history.

There were three separate investigations: Operation Dos Robles along the Mendocino coast, Operation Mahalo along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts, and Operation Delta Beluga III regarding catching sturgeon from the Sacramento River.

The Department of Fish and Game reported that seven search warrants were served and the investigation was conducted by 29 teams of wardens deployed to the Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Hayward, Fort Bragg and Mission Viejo areas.

The operations involved 85 sworn officers, more than a dozen support staff and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, according to the Department of Fish and Game.

"While we are seeing an alarming increase in criminal activity, we will continue to send the message that DFG has zero tolerance when it comes to the illegal commercialization of fish and wildlife resources,'' said Nancy Foley, DFG Chief of Enforcement.

The DFG reported last weekend it inspected 552 vehicles at checkpoints on state Highway 128 in Mendocino County and state Highway 1 in Sonoma County. Wardens issued 107 citations and confiscated 144 illegal abalone.

Abalone found in the wild cannot be sold commercially in California and can fetch between $60 and $100 per mollusk depending on the size on the black market, the DFG reported.

There were five arrests in Operation Dos Robles along the Mendocino coast, the department said. The arrests came after DFG wardens received tips on the department's "CALTIP'' hotline. Diver Lance Robles, 43 of Fort Bragg, and Marty Holloway, 44 of Beaver Marsh, Ore., were arrested for felony conspiracy to harvest abalone from a closed area and sell it commercially and for misdemeanor illegally catching and selling abalone, the state Attorney General's office reported.

They previously were arrested in April after allegedly being caught with 26 abalone, according to the DFG. Robles was arrested and convicted twice in the past 10 years for the same violations, the department reported.

Robles allegedly sold the abalone to the China House restaurant on Powell Street in San Francisco, according to the DFG.

Robles' brother Leroy Robles, 41 of Fort Bragg, was arrested for two felonies and one misdemeanor for allegedly selling the abalone to Bob's Sushi on Bay Street in San Francisco, according to the Attorney General's office.

Also arrested in Operation Dos Robles were Bao Zhang, 53 of San Francisco, and Bing Wei, 36 of Concord.

The tipster reported the Robleses were diving for abalone from behind a rented house in the Fort Bragg area and that the Robleses sold up to 100 abalone at a time to the San Francisco restaurants, the state Attorney General's office reported.

The state Attorney General's Office will prosecute the poachers in Mendocino County and the San Francisco district attorney's office will prosecute the restaurants, according to the DFG.

Four divers were arrested for allegedly consistently harvesting abalone along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts and selling the harvest to Jeff Chow, 35, in Alameda. Besides Chow, Kalen Tanaka, 42, and Chadrick Crowell, 23, both of Hayward, were arrested.

Ten suspects, including fishermen and brokers, were arrested in connection with harvesting sturgeon from the Sacramento River and selling the catch to individuals in the Oakland and Sacramento areas. Brothers Alexander Krasnodemsky, 27 of Orangedale, and Oleg Krasnodemsky, 27 of Citrus Heights, were arrested today, the DFG reported. That investigation began in May 2005.

Also arrested in Operation Delta Beluga III were Ayfou Saephan, 21, San Saefong, 28, Kaochoy Saefong, 43, Jerry Saechao, 20, Nhut Thi Truong Dang, 43, and Nai Choy Saefong, 34, all of Oakland; and Kaofey Saechao, 26 of Sacramento.

According to the Attorney General's office, the North Coast has one of the last viable populations of abalone in the world and continued poaching puts pressure on the resource. Commercial abalone harvesting in Northern California was banned in 1949 and in Central and Southern California in 1997.

California law limits recreational abalone catches to three at a given time with an annual limit of 24. Anyone with more than 12 is considered possessing for commercial purposes. The sport season is from April 1 to June 30 and Aug. 1 through Nov. 30. July is closed.

The supply to restaurants comes mainly from farmed operations.

Purchasing wild abalone is punishable by six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, according to the Attorney General's office.

The Attorney General's office reported that abalone are on the brink of extinction because their reproductive process is slow and infrequent. Successful reproduction depends on certain ocean conditions that occur only every 7 to 15 years. A small fishery can take decades to recover from collapse, according to the Attorney General's office.

Legal size sturgeon are at a 50-year low of about 10,000 in the Sacramento River and those numbers might not increase for the next 10 years, the DFG reported.

Sturgeon is often poached for the eggs, or roe, which can command up to $165 per pound on the black market and can retail for over $100 an ounce in high-end restaurants, DFG's Foley said.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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