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.

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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.

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