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Abalone Poaching Ring Smashed

September 11, 1999

ALBION, Calif. (AP) _ State agents waiting in the morning fog raided two coastal inlets Friday, cracking an abalone poaching ring that investigators say peddled thousands of the prized shellfish at $60 each on the black market.

Two divers, their pouches stuffed with abalone, were arrested after they changed from their wet suits at Dark Gulch inlet near Albion. Several others were taken into custody on the craggy Northern California coast.

California restricted abalone fishing to protect the dwindling population and closed its last commercial zone two years ago. It is legal to dive for four abalone a day from April through June and August through November, but agents believe the suspects were taking perhaps 20 a day.

The raids by Fish and Game Department agents followed months of surveillance on the suspects’ homes in the San Francisco area and along isolated coastal nooks. The investigation was prompted by an anonymous tip to a state hotline.

Authorities made 14 arrests Friday as they followed the chain of illegal abalone sales from the divers who pried the shellfish from rocks to restaurants or individuals buying them for their evening meals, Fish and Game spokesman Mark Lucero said.

Restaurants charge about $25 for an eight-ounce serving of the delicacy.

``They’ll mix in the North Coast red abalone with their legal abalone from Australia or New Zealand, and who’s to tell the difference?″ one undercover agent said.

Abalone, a sort of sea snail, can be legally harvested on aquaculture ``farms,″ but that type is smaller and not as prized as the red abalone found in intertidal pools in Northern California.

The divers arrested at Dark Gulch inlet, Yao Shao Huang, 34, and Zhi Hua Li, 37, were accused of conspiracy and possession. Each could face up to five years in prison and $40,000 in fines.

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