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."

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