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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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.

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