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.

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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.

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