On the hunt for abalone poachers in Northern California

  • California Fish and Game warden Don Powers stalks suspected abalone poachers from high above Buckhorn Cove.

    Matt Jenkins
  • A California red abalone.

    Joseph W. Dougherty, Ecology Photographic
  • The cat-and-mouse game between wardens and poachers has spawned a blizzard of technical wizardry. Powers' 4x4 is equipped with an infrared spotlight; at night, he can sneak up on poachers "blacked out" with no headlights

    Matt Jenkins
  • A freediver closes in on his quarry off the Northern California coast

    . Ken Bailey image courtesy California Department of Fish and Game
  • Don Powers checks the haul of an abalone diver he observed making an illegal handoff to another diver at Mendocino Headlands State Park

    Matt Jenkins
  • Some of the 73 abalone seized last month from six divers.

    California Department of Fish and Game
  • Men dry abalone in large wooden trays on the beach north of Point Fermin, San Pedro, California, circa 1900.

    University of Southern California, on behalf of the USC Special Collections.
  • A Japanese-American abalone fisherman in a deep-sea diving suit at the fisheries at White's Point, San Pedro, circa 1910.

    University of Southern California, on behalf of the USC Special Collections.

Last spring, Don Powers steered his government-issue pickup down Highway 1, the thin ribbon of blacktop that hugs California's North Coast. The sun shone bright, the scent of salt hung on the wind, and the world felt rapturous. In fact, a crackpot preacher  Harold Camping had prophesied that the Rapture would actually take place then -- May 21, 2011 -- and that it would kick off God's 153-day plan to destroy the entire universe. The announcement lent a certain frisson to the moment.

All down the coast, cars were parked haphazardly along the highway's shoulder. Powers, who is 32, grew up in nearby Fort Bragg, and knows the area -- and its water -- intimately. Just south of Mendocino, he pulled to the side of the road and parked near a chained wooden gate. He pulled a camouflage jacket over his bulletproof vest and extracted a pair of binoculars from behind the shotgun and the M-14 rifle mounted next to the driver's seat. Then he squeezed through the gate into the yard of a multimillion-dollar seaside home.

Powers raised the hood of his jacket to mask the shape of his head and scrambled into the branches of a dwarfish, wind-tortured pine that clung to the edge of a cliff above a rocky cove. Two hundred feet directly below him, waves exploded on the rocks. The inlet, fringed by wind-sculpted cypress trees, cradled a murky, turbulent world alive with energy. And Powers -- a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game -- leaned so far out over the edge that it seemed he might rocket straight onto the rocks below. Binoculars jammed to his eyes, he watched as two young men in blue-and-gray camouflage wetsuits swam out into the middle of the cove and then disappeared underwater.

The coves along the coast here are full of abalone, a marine snail that is surely one of oddest creatures ever to fire the mind -- and appetite -- of humankind. Blindly peering out from beneath shells that look like flattened potatoes, abalone spend their lives grazing on the ocean's thick forests of kelp. The animals keep a vise-like grip on the stony seabed, and can be levered off only with special pry bars. But, fresh from the water, they are a delicately flavored embodiment of the rocky coves in which they dwell.

For more than a century, California had a thriving commercial abalone trade. But with increasing pressure on abalone populations, the fishery is now one of the most tightly regulated in the state. The commercial fishery was shut down in 1997. While abalone used to be caught all the way down to the Mexican border, today they can only be gathered north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Scuba tanks are prohibited; divers must hold their breath and free-dive, sometimes to depths beyond 30 feet. Each diver can take no more than three abalone per day, or 24 per year. And while abalone can be "gifted" to friends, it is absolutely illegal to sell them.

Which isn't to say there's not a thriving black market. Roughly 130 species of abalone are scattered around the world. But the huge California red -- which can grow up to 11 inches in length and yield six pounds of meat -- is the king. A single specimen, in high demand in stateside Chinatowns and in Asia, can bring $100 to $150. For an unscrupulous diver, the temptation to poach can be huge. "You go down there," Powers said as he watched the divers in the water, "and they're like hundred-dollar bills, just lying on the bottom."

That's why Powers spends his days hunkered eyeball-deep in poison oak, gathering evidence against poachers. Most are simply scofflaws, garden-variety opportunists who grab an ab or two when no one seems to be looking. But others are hardcore rustlers for whom diving is a full-time job. And for someone like Powers, who grew up diving for abalone, chasing down poachers can become an intensely personal pursuit.

"Somebody new is always popping up," he said. And when that happens, he added: "I'm gonna be all over them like a rat on a Cheeto."

Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye
Jun 11, 2012 09:36 AM
In the 1960s my dad used to hunt abalone, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved cotton shirt - no wetsuit - in the frigid water south of Mendocino. I can still remember the delicate taste of fresh-caught and cooked abalone steaks. The smart abalone have all migrated into deeper water now. I hope they survive the onslaught of commercial poachers.
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Jun 11, 2012 10:54 PM
I heard of one diver going after sponges. I suppose these too are regulated.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Jun 12, 2012 01:33 AM
Before we took yet another good thing to an unhealthy extreme, Jack London wrote:
"Some folks dine on cheese and wine,
because they think it's tony.
I'm content to owe my rent
and live on abalone."
Susanne Twight- Alexander
Susanne Twight- Alexander Subscriber
Jun 12, 2012 02:23 PM
When I was a child my father was a ranger at Van Damme Beach State Park during the early 1940s. With four children to feed and food and gas stamp rationing we were very lucky that he loved to fish and to get abalone. That was when you could use a glass-bottomed box to look through and get them with a gaff hook. I remember my mother pounding them with a slotted, wooden hammer. Can still remember the smell and taste--so good. I still have one of the abalone shells that they carried with them to all the other state parks where he worked and into retirement.
Richard Boyden
Richard Boyden Subscriber
Jun 14, 2012 04:04 PM
As I heard it, if a person feels threatened, he has a right to carry a weapon. It is an unwritten law. Similarly, if a man needs to feed his family, then he can take, from nature, what he needs. But he cannot take more.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Jun 15, 2012 01:03 AM
Ask your local law enforcement agency before proceeding to observe any "unwritten laws", Mr. Boyden. In most other countries, firearms are illegal. Having a firearm on your boat in Mexican territorial waters risks confiscation of gun and boat and imprisonment. But your observation about food is the basic common denominator of self-preservation. One may assess the ethicality of different foods relative to their endangered status or your personal position on meat, etc. The bottom line of course, is that hungry people must eat what they can despite any other considerations. Again, regulations penalize taking game illegally, even in Alaska, where no other victuals than meat are present. Seems like a person can no longer live on earth without paying someone money, except at sea outside national boundaries. Reminds me of Robin Hood's time, when all the deer (and everything else) belonged to the king. A German consortium now owns the water supply here in Missouri, and Warren Buffet bought all the water rights in northern Texas. So unwritten laws are generally unreliable, and rights hypothetical. Jack London made an illegal living, as a teenager, from poaching in San Francisco Bay.