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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Wardens let them go, but fish and game investigators followed the divers to an apartment complex on Lucas Avenue in Richmond. The next day, wardens watched as some of the divers drove to Oakland's Chinatown. Instead of making illegal deliveries to restaurants or markets, they stopped at International Auto Sales in Oakland, which wardens captured on videotape. Wardens caught Phuong Hue Ly of International Auto Sales handing cash to one of the divers, which enabled wardens to charge the poachers with felony conspiracy to sell wild abalone. Ly and a friend later walked over to a nearby restaurant not identified by investigators. Police ultimately arrested all seven divers as well as six buyers from Oakland, Moraga, and San Jose.

On the same day they raided the Richmond poaching ring, wardens also nabbed Kim Keung "Peter" Gee in a separate but related case. Nine months earlier, Gee was busted for selling poached abalone in the parking lot of Emeryville's Oaks Card Club and at Artichoke Joe's card club in San Bruno, both of which attract large numbers of Asian gamblers. Gee was tied to three divers who did what wardens call "double-tripping." The divers would go up to Mendocino at dawn and take their limits there, then return home to Oakland and drop off the abs, before driving back to Sonoma, where they'd each take another four.

In October 2000, wardens followed two Calistoga divers to Eugene Market in downtown Oakland near Chinatown. Inside the market, an undercover warden watched market owner Kwi Duk Kim pay the divers $800 for 20 illegal abs, according to Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Susan Torrence. There were "strong indications" that customers were coming out of the store with abalone, Torrence said, but wardens didn't stop and question anyone.

While most illegally purloined wild abalone winds up at markets and restaurants, investigators say poachers don't have to rely on wholesalers and are now selling to a more diverse range of buyers than ever before. "There's such high demand, poachers don't need to sell to big markets or restaurants to make money," said Sonoma County's Halsey. "They can go door-to-door." In many cases, poachers make deliveries to regular families who plan to eat or serve the shellfish themselves. "The buyers used to be restaurants and markets, but now poachers stay away from them," explained Lt. Nancy Foley, a fish and game investigator. "We've seen people set up a box in Chinatown on the street and start selling them. They're all gone in seconds."

Wardens suspect that Roberts and Funkey planned to sell their harvest to commercial fisherman Jimmy Fong, owner of Goldmine Seafood at Pier 45 on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Fong owned the storage spot the two men visited before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. According to a search warrant affidavit, Roberts' cell phone records showed a number of calls between him and Fong. A warrant affidavit said Fong "is suspected to be heavily involved in the illegal trafficking of abalone." This past October, wardens arrested Fong for illegally buying at least three dozen abalone from Novato diver Philip Murphy, who also was arrested. Both men pleaded not guilty.

Roberts and Funkey have pleaded not guilty to felony conspiracy to sell abalone as well numerous misdemeanor counts of abalone poaching. Roberts also faces a drug charge because wardens found cocaine in his fanny pack.

Halsey, a poaching expert with the Sonoma County District Attorney's office who has prosecuted more than 100 poaching cases, said phone records and hotel receipts seized from Roberts' home by police suggest he had poached more than once during 2000. Roberts rented motel rooms in Marin or Sonoma Counties seven times between August and December 2000.

Despite repeated efforts by this newspaper, Roberts could not be reached for comment. Both his previously listed home phone and cell-phone numbers have been disconnected. Letters sent to the Santa Cruz address listed on court documents were returned by the post office because Roberts moved without leaving a forwarding address. He missed a January 15 court date in Santa Rosa for his poaching case because he's being held in Santa Cruz County jail on a narcotics charge. Sonoma County Judge Elliot Daum issued a $25,000 bench warrant for Roberts after he didn't appear. Roberts' attorney, Sonoma County Deputy Public Defender Bruce Kinnison, declined to comment for this story.

Roberts and Funkey are scheduled to go to jury trial next month in Sonoma County Superior Court. If found guilty, they could go to prison for three years.

Meanwhile, the north coast abalone remains the healthiest population in the state, but healthy is a relative term when dealing with an ocean full of terminal patients.

Regulators are alarmed by troubling new trends that suggest further troubles on the horizon for the red abalone. State marine biologists were unnerved recently when they discovered a disturbingly low number of young red abs. Marine biologist Pete Haacker said that when his colleagues at the Department of Fish and Game conducted a deep-water inventory off the coast of Sonoma and Mendocino counties, populations that were plentiful 10 to 15 years ago were greatly depleted. Haacker and other biologists blame poachers, most likely shady urchin divers or deep-diving ones like Roberts, who illegally use scuba gear.

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