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17 jailed in crackdown on exotic fish poaching

California police cracked down on alleged poachers who illegally harvest prized shellfish and rare mollusks and restaurateurs who buy the goods Thursday, arresting 17 in six different raids.
Department of Fish and Game warden Joe Mello carries an abalone shell and other evidence retrieved from Bob's Sushi restaurant  in San Francisco on Thursday. Ben Margot / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A convicted poacher accused of selling prized shellfish to a Chinese restaurant and divers accused of illegally harvesting the mollusks from the Northern California coast were arrested Thursday in a statewide crackdown on rare fish poaching.

The state’s Department of Fish and Game called the six raids on Thursday one of the largest abalone and sturgeon poaching busts in state history.

Game officials arrested 17 suspects during raids in Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Hayward, Fort Bragg and Mission Viejo. Three suspects are still sought.

“We cannot allow lawbreakers to bring this valuable species to ruin,” state Attorney General Bill Lockyer said in a statement. “That is why I will criminally prosecute poachers, and the restaurateurs that buy from them, to the fullest extent of the law.”

Large, lucrative black market
The raids were meant to stem an increase in black market sales of increasingly endangered fish taken from prohibited areas, game officials said.

Sport fishing for red abalone is allowed but is highly regulated and permitted only north of the San Francisco Bay. Poaching depletes one of the few thriving natural habitats for the mollusks left, officials said.

Sturgeon, sought after for pricey caviar eggs, is also jeopardized by poachers. Caviar can fetch up to $165 per pound on the black market, and game officials said the fish is commanding a greater price recently because of short supplies of Russian caviar since 2000.

“The poaching of these resources is a big problem,” Fish and Game spokesman Steve Martarano said. “This can be lucrative. We’re making every effort to show that we won’t tolerate it.”

One of the suspects arrested during Thursday’s raids is a former commercial abalone diver. Lance Robles, 43, is accused of illegally harvesting red abalone from the Mendocino coast and selling it to the China House Restaurant in San Francisco.

Robles, of Fort Bragg, faces state prosecution on two felony counts of conspiracy to harvest abalone from a closed area and sell it commercially, as well as misdemeanors for illegally catching and selling abalone.

Robles was convicted twice in the past decade for similar violations, officials said. The restaurant refused to comment on the arrest.

State officials also arrested his brother Leroy Robles, 41, of Fort Bragg. Leroy Robles faces two felony and one misdemeanor charge. He is accused of selling abalone to Bob's Sushi in San Francisco.

Bob’s Sushi owner Bao Zhang, 53, was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of purchasing abalone for commercial use. A waiter at the restaurant refused to comment and said Zhang was unavailable.

Some leads from fishermen
Ten people were also arrested in a raid known as “Operation Delta Beluga III,” which will be prosecuted in Sacramento County.

The suspects are accused of illegally harvesting sturgeon from the Sacramento River and selling the eggs and meat in Oakland and Sacramento.

Martarano said leads on some of the cases came from responsible sport fishermen.

“They don’t like it either,” he said.