A Dying Breed

Diver Joel Roberts worked to save the threatened red abalone from poaching. Then the state made commercial divers an endangered species,and Roberts allegedly became a poacher himself.

An anonymous snitch described the poaching scheme to state fish and game wardens. Two divers from the Santa Cruz area would drive north beyond the Golden Gate Bridge to plunder the coast for red abalone, which they would later sell on the Bay Area’s lucrative black market. It would be ballsy, even life-threatening, since other abalone divers have died in the notoriously rough and cloudy coastal waters of Northern California. The poachers would have to work under the cover of night because the sport-diving season had just ended and wardens could too easily spot them in daylight.

On December 5, 2000, six members of a special operations unit of the state Fish and Game Department began following the one diver the snitch identified by name: John Funkey, a 28-year-old surf rat from Capitola. They dubbed their investigation Operation Snail Track because abalone are large marine snails.

Investigators watched Funkey load his Rent-a-Wreck Dodge Caravan full of scuba gear. They then followed him to a house near the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, where a second man soon drove up in a Saab. They ran the car’s license plate numbers and learned that it belonged to Joel A. Roberts. Wardens recognized the name.

The 37-year-old Roberts had once been a licensed professional abalone diver. More alarmingly, he also had served on a state advisory committee comprised of divers trying to save the threatened mollusk from extinction. Roberts had been a highly visible advocate of abalone preservation; he appeared on CNN promoting projects designed to restore the shellfish to sustainable levels, and he and his diving partner even told the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1995 that if either of them came across any poachers, the scofflaws “would have to deal with us.”

But Roberts made these chest-pounding pronouncements before the state outlawed his profession in 1997. That commercial abalone fishing ban changed the lives and livelihoods of commercial divers like Roberts. Now they were a dying breed, just like the shellfish they’d pursued. For Roberts, the pressure may have been too much.

Wardens trailed the suspects out of Santa Cruz and up to San Francisco, where Funkey visited a storage space. From there, Funkey and Roberts drove north on the Redwood Highway and stopped at a Novato dive shop to fill their scuba tanks with air. At around 7 p.m., the divers checked into the Petaluma Motel 6, their suspected poaching base camp. Shortly thereafter, they headed north. Wardens followed the men up and down Highway 1 as they occasionally made brief pit stops near popular abalone diving spots such as Fisk Mill Cove. At one, a warden saw one of the divers holding a wetsuit.

Roberts and Funkey didn’t return to Motel 6 until 1:15 in the morning. They went back for seconds the next day, returning south on the evening of December 7. After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, the Dodge van entered San Francisco’s Presidio district as wardens tried to follow surreptitiously. But the divers apparently suspected they were being tailed. They parked twice in residential areas and waited five minutes each time before disembarking. Worried that they’d been discovered, wardens arrested Roberts and Funkey and searched their van. They found damp wetsuits and nearly empty scuba tanks, suggesting that the equipment had been used since the men visited the dive shop. The tanks only registered 85 pounds per square inch of oxygen — dangerously low, considering the rule of thumb is to stop diving for safety reasons with at least 500 PSI remaining.

Warden Kathy Ponting later testified that there was only one reason someone would dive at night in these rough waters: “To scuba dive at night on the North Coast with the visibility the way it is, your chances of being successful in spear fishing decrease.” There would be “no reasonable reason” to do so, Ponting noted, other than diving for North Coast gold.

Diving for gold — in many ways, that’s what abalone diving was. Abs, as divers call the threatened mollusks, sell for as much as $80 to $100 on the black market. Talented poachers can make $60,000 a year tax-free and even as much as $100,000, according to fish and game officials. A dozen full-grown abs can now sell for about $1,000 — twice as much as before the ban. In the case of Roberts and Funkey, authorities confiscated 129 red abalone, a take worth as much as $10,000 in the primarily Asian abalone underworld of Oakland, Emeryville, Richmond, San Jose, and San Francisco. It was an obscene take considering that the legal daily limit for abalone was then four per diver.

The Roberts bust underscored the sad but predictable result of the state’s efforts to save California abalone. The state banned commercial abalone diving in 1997 and closed the Southern California fishery in the hope that abalone populations would bounce back. But while officials await evidence of that strategy’s success, they are forced to acknowledge that increased scarcity and profit potential has dramatically increased poaching along the Sonoma and Mendocino county coasts.

Abalone have existed on the Pacific seaboard for millions of years, but the Northern California coastline is now home to one of the world’s last viable abalone populations, and the Bay Area is arguably the capital of the nation’s illicit abalone trade. A spokeswoman from the Ocean Conservancy describes such harvesting — and even legal recreational sport diving — as the “moral equivalent of hunting the California Condor.”

Abalone, so-called gastropod mollusks, are the grandest of all California shellfish. They’re peculiar tentacled creatures that grow at a snail’s pace: about a half-inch to one inch a year. Because they grow so slowly, it usually takes the mollusks more than a decade to reach sexual maturity. But when full grown, the foot of the Northern California red abalone — the largest in the world — can exceed ten inches. Its shells have a psychedelic, metallic-rainbow quality, making them popular as exotic ashtrays or mantle decorations.

When Chinese immigrants first settled on the West Coast in the mid-1800s, they couldn’t believe the tasty bounty nestled on Northern California’s rocky shoreline. While European émigrés hadn’t previously encountered abalone, the mollusk had been long considered a seafood delicacy in Asian cultures. These Chinese “shore pickers” waited for low tide to pry abalone off the rocks, according to A.L. “Scrap” Lundy, author of The California Abalone Industry: A Pictorial History. The Chinese marveled at the size of the red abalone, which were much larger than the ones in the Orient. “They found the shores just covered with these things,” said Lundy, a former abalone diver. “They thought they’d died and went to heaven.”

Just what makes the mollusks such a delicacy is not easily put into words. “It’s a really unique taste,” said Christopher Cheung, owner of Oakland’s Marica Seafood Restaurant, which serves an abalone crab cake. “It’s something for which there’s no substitute.” The few Bay Area restaurants that serve the shellfish generally buy them from a handful of California farms where abalone are grown in tanks or suspended cages. But the farmed ones don’t have the same mystique as the famous red abalone of Northern California. Tank-grown abs tend to be smaller, and lack another key ingredient: rarity. “What makes diamonds special or sapphires or rubies?” asks John Duffy, assistant executive director of the state Fish and Game Commission. “It’s the human psyche.”

The early Chinese shore pickers would dry out abalone and send it to Asia — one year shipping as much as four million pounds, according to Lundy. And in 1895, a Japanese-American salmon fisherman came across the red abalone bonanza near Monterey. He contacted a Tokyo businessman who later set up an elaborate diving operation based at Whalers Cove, three miles south of Carmel. “That was the founding of commercial abalone diving in California,” Lundy said.

But the fishermen had to ship their entire harvest to Asia because white westerners wouldn’t touch the stuff. It’s easy to understand why. It’s slimy and rubbery if not prepared right — like chewing on a neoprene diving glove. Though abalone boasts a subtle, not overwhelming taste for a sea morsel, Americans objected to the chewing power required to bite the stuff. The Japanese tried to entice locals to eat the mollusk by slipping it into chowder or salads, but nothing worked. Enter Monterey restaurant owner Ernest “Pop” Doelter. About a decade after the export ban, Doelter discovered that if you pounded the hell out of the abalone’s muscular foot and then breaded and fried it, the mollusk became tender and tasty enough for local palates. “That’s when the white folks went for it,” Lundy said.

For reasons apparently more racial than environmental, state officials put restrictions on the fishery during the heyday of Chinese harvesting, and again in 1913 when the Legislature shut down the Japanese trade by making it illegal to export the shellfish. Cabrillo College history teacher Sandy Lydon said xenophobic politicians of the time argued that the foreigners were exterminating a resource they ironically described as “valuable and delicious.”

When commercial pressure to fish the state’s waters mounted, the focus was on the state’s southern coast, which was warmer, calmer, and less dangerous, thus more popular with fishermen. Duffy said the commercial fishing industry never pushed to open the northern coastline because it could find plenty of abalone from Monterey to the Mexican border. Except for a brief time during World War II, the Northern California coastline from the Golden Gate Bridge to Oregon always has been off limits to commercial abalone fishing.

But overharvesting wasn’t a problem initially because boats were slow and gear heavy. Abalone divers wore old-fashioned underwater metal helmets connected to an air hose, making diving strenuous and tedious. Even after World War II, there were only between 30 and 40 licensed divers in the state, Lundy said.

So the state basically left the industry alone. For decades, the only restrictions governed size (minimum 7 3/4 inches in diameter), seasons (fishing permitted from April 1 to June 30 and August 1 to November 30) and hours (nighttime diving was not allowed). As recently as 1990, divers could harvest as many abalone as they wanted.

Ultimately, though, faster boats and lighter diving gear attracted more people to the profession, and by 1975, there were 499 licensed commercial abalone divers in California. So in the mid-1970s, the Department of Fish and Game capped the number of licensed divers and devised its “two for one” policy to force attrition. Two old abalone divers had to give up their licenses before one new diver could get licensed.

By the time Roberts obtained his commercial fishing permit in a mid-1980s Fish and Game lottery, fishermen in Half Moon Bay warned him he could never make a living because the area’s waters already had been picked clean. In an interview with Surfer magazine, Roberts recalled that locals cheekily suggested to the lithe, young diver one suicidal alternative: the Farallon Islands, where great white sharks roamed in search of succulent seals.

But Roberts liked living dangerously, so that’s just what he and dive partner Brian Price did. In spite of the warnings, he found an exhilarating and profitable lifestyle being an abalone diver. He carried a 9mm Glock pistol modified to shoot underwater, and boasted to Surfer that his business was so lucrative he only worked a total of 60 days a year, which allowed him to spend two months each year vacationing in Costa Rica.

Roberts and Price’s dangerous exploits quickly became the stuff of local diving legend. In 1995, Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter John Robinson and photographer Vern Fisher accompanied Roberts and Price during one of their trips. They described the intense life of abalone diving with great whites hovering overhead as “the Deeper Blue.” Not coincidentally, Roberts named his boat The Deeper Blue. His motto: “No cojónes, no abalones.”

“Obviously, I was prepared to die when I started this,” Roberts told the Sentinel with macho pride. “But I don’t think I’m destined to die from a shark.” When Roberts and Price weren’t diving with sharks, they were surfing with them in Santa Cruz, occasionally even helping film the famous Mavericks surfing films.

Robinson felt awed by the two divers, who worked just a shark-attack away from death. They were athletic and fearless with crystal eyes that reflected the ocean they worked. “They were extraordinary people,” Robinson said. “There was something addictive about that lifestyle.”

When Southern California waters started coming up bare in the 1980s, abalone fishing boats moved north near the edge of the commercial fishery. It was around this time that state biologists like Kon Karpov began noticing a suspicious increase in the amount of red abalone fishermen claimed they had harvested in legal waters. Karpov and conservation-minded sport divers suggested that unscrupulous fishermen were illegally collecting red abs on the protected Sonoma and Mendocino coasts and then claiming to have taken them from legal spots like the Farallon Islands — Joel Roberts’ favorite diving area.

Using state landing records — documents in which divers reported how many abs they caught each boat outing — Karpov and fish and game wardens busted two commercial boats, The Phaedra and Hellraiser, for poaching tons of northern abalone in 1990. Some time thereafter, fish and game wardens also busted what they believed to be the largest poaching ring in state history: Divers illegally picked more than 20 tons of abalone worth an estimated $2.4 million wholesale off the Sonoma County coast, and then sold it in Asia. The ringleader, San Diego fisherman Van Howard Johnson, earned a three-year prison sentence for his exploits.

Shellfish are particularly vulnerable to overharvesting because they can’t exactly run away. In fact, abalone typically secure themselves to a single rock for an entire lifetime of kelp and algae nibbling. And as a potential environmental cause cél?bre, they suffer from being neither as cute nor noble as endangered species such as sea otters or coho salmon. For all of these reasons, abalone are heavily dependent upon state officials for protection.

Abalone poaching is only a misdemeanor — albeit one that can carry a minimum $15,000 — one reason poachers are willing to risk getting caught. State legislators have resisted efforts by law enforcement to make poaching a felony. But in 1990, state regulators did impose a new diving limit of 84 abs per diver, or 168 per boat, for divers working off the San Mateo Coast and Monterey coasts from Point Lobos to Pigeon Point. Divers to the south were allowed take about double the amount of their northern counterparts.

Desperate commercial abalone divers also supported a 1990 bill that imposed a 19.5 cent landing tax on their reported catches. The tax money would fund abalone “seeding” studies and projects where young tank-grown abalone would be placed in the ocean.

The legislation established a volunteer six-member advisory committee of commercial abalone divers. It was dubbed the Commercial Abalone Advisory Committee, and it would make suggestions to the fish and game director on how to spend the new abalone tax. Joel Roberts was named to the committee. “It was a matter of who was willing to do the work,” said fellow committee member John Colgate, president of the California Abalone Association. “And Joel stepped up and did it.”

With his blond, beach-bum good looks and soft, earnest voice, Roberts became the face of the new, enlightened commercial diver. These environmentally conscious divers realized that neither abalone nor abalone divers could survive unless people gave something back to the ocean. This position seemed to square nicely with the spiritual side of Roberts, a Buddhist who friends say meditated and practiced yoga.

The newly visible Roberts made appearances on television news programs promoting seeding efforts by commercial divers. Stories in 1993 from the San Francisco Chronicle and Good Times in Santa Cruz billed Roberts as the guy directing seeding in locations near Half Moon Bay. “This is the first major abalone enhancement project in California and we think we have the technology to make it a success,” Roberts boasted to the Chron. “I saw Joel as an environmentalist, as someone concerned about his fishery,” said Steve Rebuck, a former consultant to the California Abalone Association, a coalition of commercial divers. “When I first heard about his arrest, he was kind of the last person you’d think of.” Maybe to some people Roberts was an unlikely candidate to become a poacher. But fish and game wardens had long held suspicions about Roberts. Between 1989 and 1991, fish and game’s investigative unit opened up a bogus abalone-buying storefront called Bounty Seafoods on Half Moon Bay. The undercover probe, dubbed Haliotis I after the scientific name for abalone, ensnared a dozen poaching suspects. Roberts came under scrutiny, but investigators decided not to go after him, according to Fred Cole, deputy chief of fish and game’s enforcement branch, who would not elaborate.

Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Brooke Halsey noted that Roberts had boasted of prolific catches when the commercial fishery was in decline. Halsey never proved that Roberts was poaching back then, but given the diver’s current predicament he believes it is “highly suspect” that Roberts was harvesting all his abs at the Farallons.

In 1996, wardens cited Roberts for a couple of technical fish and game violations. In one instance, Roberts got cited for not properly filling out all his paperwork and thus not paying the required landing taxes — the same revenues he oversaw on the state advisory committee. The department referred the allegations to the Marin County district attorney’s office, which apparently didn’t pursue the case.

Roberts got off easy in both of his brushes with the law. But “the Deeper Blue” itself would soon become illegal.

The year 1997 was a bad one for Joel Roberts even before the state outlawed his livelihood. It began when an El Ni?o storm devastated his Tomales Bay abalone farm, Liquid Earth Abalone. Such farms began appearing in California in the early 1990s as the number of wild abalone plummeted. A handful remain today, providing most of the legal abalone sold at restaurants. The farms grew their crops in tanks or, as in the case of Liquid Earth, used cages suspended in the bay. The excess creek water and hillside runoff from the January rainstorm reduced the salinity of Tomales Bay, killing the farm’s abalone.

But an even bigger blow came in May, near the beginning of the abalone season, when the Fish and Game Commission imposed a 120-day moratorium on commercial diving. By 1996, only 101 commercial ab divers remained in the state, thanks to licensing limits and the ever-declining number of mollusks left to fish. But that year’s total commercial harvest still plunged below 300,000 pounds, down from five million in 1957. All the popular hues of California abalone — red, pink, green, and especially white — were heading for extinction.

During the moratorium, fish and game officials debated whether to permanently close the fishery. Roberts and his fellow divers testified before the Legislature that viable abalone populations remained at the Farallon Islands as well as the San Miguel Islands off the Santa Barbara coast. They also pointed out that recreation sports divers harvested ten times as much abalone — or about 2 million pounds — as commercial divers. They suggested the state beef up coastal enforcement to catch poachers, rather than punish law-abiding divers trying to make a living. But their arguments fell on deaf ears in the Legislature, which proceeded to ban commercial fishing indefinitely.

The ban obviously hurt all the state’s commercial divers, but some felt the impact more than others. Eighty had other fishing permits, mostly for sea urchins. But divers who specialized in abalone, such as Roberts, were out of work entirely. Roberts’ diving partner, Price, a marine biologist with other options, went to work in the Alaskan fisheries, according to a friend. As for Roberts, he got a sea urchin license in 1998. But the license was only to be a crew hand, not a full-fledged fisherman like he used to be.

Former Sentinel reporter Robinson bumped into Roberts in December 2000, shortly before he got busted for poaching. Roberts said he had been doing some freelance diving work. Robinson thought Roberts seemed a lot different than the fearless diver he accompanied to the Farallons five years earlier. “He seemed lost,” Robinson said. “When they took away his livelihood, they took away his soul.”

When the state imposed the moratorium on commercial abalone fishing in 1997, the ban quickly transformed the logistics and scale of poaching. For starters, the moratorium firmly established Northern California as the base of most poaching operations. Because the law now prohibited abalone diving of any kind in southern waters, poachers there now faced a greater risk of being caught. Coastal wardens began reporting more poaching by northern sport divers who were creatively circumventing the rules that still allowed them to take up to 100 abs a year for personal consumption.

In June 2000, wardens busted a typical East Bay poaching operation that took an estimated 1,000 abalone a month from the Mendocino coast. Four or five times a week, as many as seven divers from Richmond would drive up to Mote Creek in Mendocino County and arrive by dawn. Wardens became suspicious about the regular visits by the clan, many of whom were relatives, and went to check out their harvest one day. Practically all the divers had the maximum legal limit of four each.

Wardens let them go, but fish and game investigators followed the divers to an apartment complex on Lucas Avenue in Richmond. The next day, wardens watched as some of the divers drove to Oakland’s Chinatown. Instead of making illegal deliveries to restaurants or markets, they stopped at International Auto Sales in Oakland, which wardens captured on videotape. Wardens caught Phuong Hue Ly of International Auto Sales handing cash to one of the divers, which enabled wardens to charge the poachers with felony conspiracy to sell wild abalone. Ly and a friend later walked over to a nearby restaurant not identified by investigators. Police ultimately arrested all seven divers as well as six buyers from Oakland, Moraga, and San Jose.

On the same day they raided the Richmond poaching ring, wardens also nabbed Kim Keung “Peter” Gee in a separate but related case. Nine months earlier, Gee was busted for selling poached abalone in the parking lot of Emeryville’s Oaks Card Club and at Artichoke Joe’s card club in San Bruno, both of which attract large numbers of Asian gamblers. Gee was tied to three divers who did what wardens call “double-tripping.” The divers would go up to Mendocino at dawn and take their limits there, then return home to Oakland and drop off the abs, before driving back to Sonoma, where they’d each take another four.

In October 2000, wardens followed two Calistoga divers to Eugene Market in downtown Oakland near Chinatown. Inside the market, an undercover warden watched market owner Kwi Duk Kim pay the divers $800 for 20 illegal abs, according to Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Susan Torrence. There were “strong indications” that customers were coming out of the store with abalone, Torrence said, but wardens didn’t stop and question anyone.

While most illegally purloined wild abalone winds up at markets and restaurants, investigators say poachers don’t have to rely on wholesalers and are now selling to a more diverse range of buyers than ever before. “There’s such high demand, poachers don’t need to sell to big markets or restaurants to make money,” said Sonoma County’s Halsey. “They can go door-to-door.” In many cases, poachers make deliveries to regular families who plan to eat or serve the shellfish themselves. “The buyers used to be restaurants and markets, but now poachers stay away from them,” explained Lt. Nancy Foley, a fish and game investigator. “We’ve seen people set up a box in Chinatown on the street and start selling them. They’re all gone in seconds.”

Wardens suspect that Roberts and Funkey planned to sell their harvest to commercial fisherman Jimmy Fong, owner of Goldmine Seafood at Pier 45 on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Fong owned the storage spot the two men visited before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. According to a search warrant affidavit, Roberts’ cell phone records showed a number of calls between him and Fong. A warrant affidavit said Fong “is suspected to be heavily involved in the illegal trafficking of abalone.” This past October, wardens arrested Fong for illegally buying at least three dozen abalone from Novato diver Philip Murphy, who also was arrested. Both men pleaded not guilty.

Roberts and Funkey have pleaded not guilty to felony conspiracy to sell abalone as well numerous misdemeanor counts of abalone poaching. Roberts also faces a drug charge because wardens found cocaine in his fanny pack.

Halsey, a poaching expert with the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office who has prosecuted more than 100 poaching cases, said phone records and hotel receipts seized from Roberts’ home by police suggest he had poached more than once during 2000. Roberts rented motel rooms in Marin or Sonoma Counties seven times between August and December 2000.

Despite repeated efforts by this newspaper, Roberts could not be reached for comment. Both his previously listed home phone and cell-phone numbers have been disconnected. Letters sent to the Santa Cruz address listed on court documents were returned by the post office because Roberts moved without leaving a forwarding address. He missed a January 15 court date in Santa Rosa for his poaching case because he’s being held in Santa Cruz County jail on a narcotics charge. Sonoma County Judge Elliot Daum issued a $25,000 bench warrant for Roberts after he didn’t appear. Roberts’ attorney, Sonoma County Deputy Public Defender Bruce Kinnison, declined to comment for this story.

Roberts and Funkey are scheduled to go to jury trial next month in Sonoma County Superior Court. If found guilty, they could go to prison for three years.

Meanwhile, the north coast abalone remains the healthiest population in the state, but healthy is a relative term when dealing with an ocean full of terminal patients.

Regulators are alarmed by troubling new trends that suggest further troubles on the horizon for the red abalone. State marine biologists were unnerved recently when they discovered a disturbingly low number of young red abs. Marine biologist Pete Haacker said that when his colleagues at the Department of Fish and Game conducted a deep-water inventory off the coast of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, populations that were plentiful 10 to 15 years ago were greatly depleted. Haacker and other biologists blame poachers, most likely shady urchin divers or deep-diving ones like Roberts, who illegally use scuba gear.

Fish and game officials estimate that $1.2 million worth of abalone gets poached each year. Warden Steve Riske wrote in September 2001 that poaching-related arrests and citations increased 40 percent from the same time a year earlier. Riske attributed the spike to additional checkpoints and a boost in the number of wardens assigned to the North Coast. But in spite of the new wardens, there still aren’t enough patrols to catch every poacher. At the beginning of 2001, the department had 75 unfilled game warden positions in the state — a shortfall blamed on the low pay wardens earn compared to other law enforcement employees. Consequently, environmentalists suspect the poaching problem is larger than believed. “There’s some Darwinism when it comes to catching poachers,” said Rocky Daniels, a sport-diver from Cotati who serves on the board of the nonprofit Sonoma County Abalone Network. “They’re getting the stupid ones.”

But, in truth, there are bigger fish to fry than the poachers who harvest an estimated 50,000 shellfish each year. Legal sport divers harvest 765,000 abalone a year. And since the closure of the southern fishery in 1997, there has been a 27 percent increase in abalone sport diving along the Sonoma and Mendocino coastlines, according to fish and game researchers who examined abalone catch records and conducted diver surveys.

To combat this population decline, the Fish and Game Commission recently voted to reduce bag limits for sports divers from four per day and 100 per year to three per day and 24 per year. The new rules will go into effect when the abalone sport-diving season reopens April 1. But it could well be another case of what San Francisco Chronicle outdoors writer Tom Stienstra has called the right medicine for a patient who’s already dead. Even with the commercial and sport diving bans in the south, biologist Haacker doubts the species can be restored in Southern California — especially the endangered white abalone, with an estimated remaining population of less than 3,000. There’s still hope for the North Coast, however, and the department’s beefed-up poaching enforcement has helped protect the dying mollusk.

As for Joel Roberts, at one point he and other commercial divers had urged state officials to pursue and prosecute poachers more aggressively. Eventually, they took his advice. And now Roberts could very well be in a prison cell when the state may consider reopening commercial fishing in 2003.

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