Eleven suspected abalone poachers have been arrested in northern California, officials said Friday.

Since the tide was unusually low in Mendocino County, California Department of Fish & Game wardens were aware of the increased risk of poaching activity and kept their eyes on the coast line, including the coral reefs that had become exposed as the water disappeared.

At about 6.15 a.m. on Wednesday wardens noticed suspicious divers exiting waters near Caspar, south of Fort Bragg. Fish & Game Lt. Kathy Ponting, who runs the special operations unit, said her team drove to a spot near the suspicious divers and began surveillance.

Unaware of the wardens’ presence, the divers collected abalone from the reef and placed them in tall grass near the beach.

Then a large van pulled up near the dive area and we watched them load up a bunch of abalone in plastic bags into the van,” Ponting said. The divers went back to the sea, while wardens decided to follow the van. After pulling it over, they discovered 50 abalones inside.

Abalones can sell for up to $100 dollars, but collection is strictly regulated since these molluscs need many years to develop. It can take 12 years for a specimen to reach the legal size. With a California fishing license and an abalone stamp card you are allowed to fetch 24 specimens per year, but no more than three per day. It is also illegal to collect them for sale, and anyone caught with a dozen or more will be considered possessing them with the intention of selling them.

abalone 11 suspected abalone poachers arrested in California may be facing $40,000 fine
Red Abalone. The only type that can be harvested.

When the van did not return to the divers, the alleged poachers loaded a pickup truck. The wardens followed the car to a nearby hotel and found coolers filled with abalone inside the divers’ hotel room. Most of the abalones were smaller than the legal size.

The wardens found a total of 166 abalones with the group, Ponting said. The suspects were booked on charges of felony conspiracy to harvest abalone for commercial purposes, which carries a fine of up to $40,000, said Game Warden Patrick Foy. Two vehicles also were

seized along with $6,000 in cash.

The black market for abalone is large and poaching is widespread, despite official efforts to eradicate the practise.

We always only catch the tip of the iceberg, there is so much

abalone poaching going on because of the black market,” Ponting

explained. “We can pick almost any group and watch them poaching

abalone. It’s really unsettling.”

What is an abalone?

The abalone is a medium sized to very large edible sea snail prized for its exquisite flavour. There is roughly 100 known species world wide, all of them being gastropod molluscs belonging to the genus Haliotis. You may stumble upon a species marketed as “Chilean abalone” in the food trade, but this is not a real abalone; its name is Concholepas concholepas and it belongs to an entirely different family.

Since abalones are found in so many different parts of the world, they are known under many different names, such as abulón in Spanish, ormer in Jersey and Guernsey, pāua in

New Zealand, muttonfish or muttonshells in Australia, perlemoen in South Africa, and Venus’s-ears, ear-shells, and sea-ears in British and American English.

Abalones reach sexual maturity when they are comparatively small, but they won’t produce any significant amount of offspring until they grow bigger. A small abalone may release around 10,000 eggs at a time, which may sound like a big number but is dwarfed compared to the 11 million eggs released at a time by really large abalones. As a result of this, the removal of abalones from the sea before they have a chance to grow large is highly detrimental to the survival of the species.

Abalone has been farmed since the 1950s in Japan and China, and during the 1990s the practise spread to other parts of the world in response to dwindling wild populations. Today, it is possible to purchase farmed abalone and refrain from removing specimens from the wild. China and Japan are still major producers of abalone, but has been joined by Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Namibia, Iceland, Ireland, Canada, USA, Mexico, and Chile.

Catching abalone in California

As mentioned above, it is legal to fetch a certain amount of abalone per day and year in Californian waters if you have a California fishing license and an abalone stamp card. The abalone stamp card has 24 tags and captured abalones must be tagged immediately. The legal size is (a minimum of) seven inches (178 mm) measured across the shell. A person may be in possession of no more than three abalones at any given time. Other regulations to keep in mind are listed below. Always check with the California Department of Fish & Game before you go abalone hunting in California to find out if there have been any regulatory changes.

· Scuba diving for abalone is always prohibited; you may only pick them from the shore or use breath-hold techniques.

· Abalone may only be taken from April to November, not including July.

· You may only take Red abalones; no Black, White, Pink, or Flat abalones.

· You may not take any abalones south of the mouth of the San Francisco Bay.

· You may not sell any part of the abalone, including the shell.

· Only abalones still attached to the shell can be legally transported.