On the hunt for abalone poachers in Northern California

by Matt Jenkins

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."

In an era when we demand that our food has a story behind it, the abalone's tale weaves together cultures and continents 5,000 miles apart. The Chinese and Japanese have harvested the animal from Asian waters for at least a millennium and a half, and the Indians along the Pacific Coast of North America have probably relied on it for just as long.

It wasn't until near the end of the 19th century, though, that a commercial fishery for the shellfish took hold in California, pioneered by Japanese and Chinese laborers who had originally come to build railroads. For decades afterward, the sole market was Asia, where abalone, often dried and ground into powder, are coveted as both a culinary status symbol and an aphrodisiac.

The abalone's eminence in the gastronomic firmament is not, to be sure, universally acknowledged. When fresh, it is extremely rubbery. "If you put enough garlic and butter on it," said one skeptic, "you could eat an inner tube, too."

But sometime in the early 1900s, a fez-wearing German chef  Pop Doelter discovered that a vigorous assault with a mallet would make abalone tender enough for the Anglo tooth. Still, abalone cuisine is a lesson in balance. Too much pounding turns it to mush, but an instant too long in the frying pan will, perversely, turn it right back to rubber.

With Doelter's breakthrough, however, abalone became a signature dish at white-linen establishments on San Francisco's Fishermen's Wharf. It also caught on among the proletariat, and survives to this day in the Sunset-style fare that includes dishes like abalone roll-ups, abalone relleños and cheesy abalone balls. Around nightfall after abalone season opens every April 1, practically every state park campground on the North Coast is packed with aficionados hunched over picnic tables, slicing, pounding and frying up fresh-caught abalone. For those with a more discriminating palate, there is awabi: abalone sliced and eaten raw, sashimi-style.

"It's just such a great North Coast culture," said Brooke Halsey, an abalone diver and former Sonoma County deputy district attorney. "It's so particular to this place. And then you put a great bottle of chardonnay with it, and it's unbeatable."

In 1953, a visiting protozoologist named Eugene Bovee praised the abalone as "a giant amongst gastropods," and raved about its "proteinaceous tang" and "tasty, sarcoplasmic juices." But, he noted, much of the abalone's allure lies in its elusiveness. "Harmless vegetarian though it is, (the abalone) is a formidable antagonist for the man who hunts it," Bovee wrote. "Abalone diving is not for sissies."

With little more than a wetsuit, weight belt, swim fins and an "ab iron," divers battle wild surf, intense currents and extreme cold to pry the stubborn animals from Neptune's realm. The enterprise pits man against slug, but it is a full-contact sport. "Abalone do not have red blood," counsel the authors of Abalone: From Sea to Saucepan, "so if you see any, it's yours."

This is not berry-picking or urban foraging. Abalone divers risk shark attacks, shallow water blackouts, riptides, and underwater entanglement in forests of kelp. Last year on the North Coast, five abalone divers perished. Yet the danger only makes the taste seem sweeter. "It's the thrill of the hunt," Halsey said. "You're fighting the elements, and you're fighting the sea."

Last May, after Don Powers had spent a couple of hours belly-crawling through brambles and thickets along the seaside cliffs, the unglamorous part of the job caught up with him. He stood up and groaned: "I gotta get my underwear out of my fucking throat."

Three months earlier, Powers helped lay the groundwork for the biggest sting of the year, against a Chinese national named Qiong Wang, who goes by the English name Jimmy. Wang grew up in the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin, and emigrated to the U.S. in 2000. He worked a series of construction jobs in L.A. before moving to San Francisco; soon after, he started collecting unemployment and playing bass in a band called Space Coke.

"Before I came to San Francisco, I'd heard about abalone but I never ate one," said Wang, who turned 33 in February. "It was an expensive delicacy." Then, he said, "Somebody mentioned it to me at the time I needed some quick cash."

According to Wang, he had never dived before. But he bought two sets of scuba gear on Craigslist, and taught himself to use them by watching YouTube. He made a test run off Oakland: "I thought: ‘That's easy. I'll go tomorrow.' " Sitting in jail five months later, Wang allowed that his method had its flaws: It was "wutou cangying" -- like a headless fly scurrying around. In fact, the enterprise was probably doomed from the start.

On Feb. 2, 2011, Wang and a buddy were returning to San Francisco with five poached abalone, when a Petaluma cop stopped them while searching for a robbery suspect. When the officer -- a sport diver himself -- discovered the abalone, Wang told him he was "going to have his mother make soup with them for Chinese New Year's." But abalone season didn't begin for another two months.

Wang was arrested but quickly released. Undeterred, he returned to the North Coast 10 days later. This time, a sheriff's deputy pulled him over on his way home for speeding. When the officer discovered 36 abalone in a duffel bag in the back seat of Wang's Toyota Camry -- along with four scuba tanks in the trunk -- he radioed Fish and Game for backup. Don Powers took the call, arrested Wang, and seized his car, dive gear and two cell phones. But Wang himself, much to his surprise, was released the next day.

One week later, he was back at it. At 5:40 on a Saturday morning, Wang's buddy Michael Trevors pulled up to his house in southeast San Francisco in a VW Jetta. Eighteen minutes later, the two men left for the North Coast. This time, though, they had company.

From the moment Wang left jail the week before, undercover officers from the fish and game department's Special Operations Unit had been tailing him. They dubbed the case Operation Karma. "Hey, it's karma that this guy gets caught," said the lead agent in the case. "He's not smart enough to stop."

After a three-and-a-half hour drive north, Wang and Trevors pulled into a dive shop in Fort Bragg, rented scuba gear and a kayak, and then drove 10 miles back down the coast to Van Damme State Park. For much of the next nine hours, wardens hid on the bluffs above, watching and videotaping as Wang dived for abalone and handed them to Trevors, in the kayak. Wang took 55 abalone, worth roughly $5,500. That brought his total over a two-week period to 96 -- four times the yearly limit -- and abalone season wouldn't even open for another month and a half.

About an hour after sundown that day, Wang and Trevors drove back to Fort Bragg to return the rented gear. When they pulled into the dive shop parking lot, two wardens arrested them. To avoid a three-year prison sentence, Wang took a plea bargain that put him in jail for eight months, cost him $20,000 in fines and barred him from ever again fishing in the state of California. After Wang finished his jail term, he faced deportation, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement released him in December.

Wang maintains that although he knows "a lot of people buying" abalone, he merely sold to friends. But Dave Bess, the lieutenant in charge of the Special Operations Unit, has his doubts. "The volume the guy's getting doesn't match the story that he's telling," he said, adding that it's extremely rare for Asian poachers to give up their buyers, even after they've been arrested. "These guys," Bess said, "don't roll over to get less time."

The running war between wardens and poachers has spawned unconventional tactics on both sides. Poachers dive at night, with glow sticks tucked inside funnels. They hide abalone in false-bottomed scuba tanks, and rotate through fleets of rental cars to throw investigators off their trails. Some, nursing serious methamphetamine habits, attain a kind of superhuman stamina that allows them to dive for days, leaving exhausted wardens in the dust.

The Fish and Game Department has deployed its own countermeasures, ranging from the 10-member Special Operations Unit to abalone-sniffing dogs. Special-operations officers have carried out complex surveillance operations, tailed poachers more than 500 miles from the North Coast to Los Angeles, and opened a dummy seafood business to lure in game thieves. They've even deployed a boat-mounted, high-power Celestron telescope to spy on poachers over the curve of the earth, from more than 15 miles away.

The abalone wars hit their peak in the 1990s, as demand for the shellfish grew and the price soared. Rumors began circulating of criminal syndicates that funneled mind-boggling amounts of abalone to the Far East. In 1990, wardens busted a commercial diver named Darrell Tatman after finding meat from nearly 200 abalone stashed in a hidden, custom-built compartment on his boat, which he called Hellraiser. Four years later, investigators nailed a diver who subsequently agreed to become an informant and wear a wire, gathering evidence that ultimately helped dismantle several large-scale poaching rings. The biggest, run by a San Diego seafood broker named Van Howard "Hojo" Johnson, took at least 20 tons of abalone on the North Coast, which were then flown to Southern California on commercial flights out of San Francisco International Airport. Johnson spent three years in San Quentin and paid a $50,000 fine.

The case led, in turn, to another large-scale Los Angeles-based poaching syndicate run by Jason Diep, his brother, Loi Bao, and Chris Doan. But that case never quite panned out. Brooke Halsey, the former Sonoma County prosecutor, remembers being told by informants about "walk-in freezers that were completely filled with abalone that were being shipped all over the world." But when agents served a warrant on the buyer's warehouse, near L.A., "we walked into the freezers," Halsey says, "and they were empty."

That was the closest investigators have come to blowing open the fabled trans-Pacific abalone-trafficking pipeline. In reality, the business is flexible, adaptable -- and, contrary to legend, there are neither global kingpins nor world-spanning syndicates.

"The Chinese are highly networked, and there must be a thousand different channels out of the San Francisco area where you can move abalone," said Rocky Daniels, a sport diver who for years obsessively followed poaching cases. "Shutting it down? The way it's organized, I just don't think it's possible to do."

In recent years, few cases have rivaled the high-profile busts of the '90s. But that, some wardens say, may simply indicate that the truly professional poachers have gotten much better at what they do. "It's Darwinism," said Mervin Hee, who headed the Special Operations Unit until 2003. "The dumb crooks get caught, and the ones that get smarter get harder and harder to catch."

As he drove south on Highway 1, Powers admitted to a nagging worry about one shadowy nemesis. Busted as an accessory to a poaching case more than a decade ago, the man -- whose signature move is rappelling, commando-style, into otherwise inaccessible coves at night -- has glimmered on and off wardens' radar in the years since. "He's out there right now, somewhere," Powers said. "And he's good."

Abalone may -- in their own proteinacious, sarcoplasmic way -- merely be a metaphor for the irresistible temptations of life. Once you've put yourself at the ocean's mercy, it's easy to rationalize pushing the limits and taking more, even if just a little, than you know you're supposed to.

Earlier on that prophesied day of reckoning last May, Don Powers tucked himself deep into a low fringe of brush on a sandy bluff overlooking the Mendocino Headlands, clamped the binoculars to his face, and took notes. In the water below, an older diver handed off a couple of abalone to a pair of 20-something companions. It was strictly small-time stuff, but it wasn't very sporting. When the divers climbed back up the bluff to the parking lot and saw Powers waiting, they knew the jig was up.

"You want me to go put 'em back?" one asked.

The divers were, it turned out, a family. When the kids failed to take their allotted three abalone each, their dad caught their limit himself. But any attempt to manipulate the individual catch limit is illegal. Powers wrote out a clutch of tickets, and set a court date for a month later. It was not a cheap mistake: Each of the divers faced a fine upward of $1,000.

Powers confiscated the abalone and added them to the cooler in the bed of his patrol rig. The family, meanwhile, huddled together in the sunshine and the stiffening breeze. They had driven five hours from the inland town of Redding. Despite how costly the day was proving for them, it still seemed like a pretty decent way to spend a weekend. Harold Camping's hellfire prophecy seemed less likely by the minute. And getting buffeted and scraped in the bright surf -- leaving a little blood in the water while catching dinner -- felt much more sensible than fretting about the Apocalypse, anyway.

Powers climbed into his pickup and headed out again. Before he disappeared down Highway 1, the family had already hatched a plan to come back and get a little more ab diving in, on their way to court.

© High Country News