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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Fish and game officials estimate that $1.2 million worth of abalone gets poached each year. Warden Steve Riske wrote in September 2001 that poaching-related arrests and citations increased 40 percent from the same time a year earlier. Riske attributed the spike to additional checkpoints and a boost in the number of wardens assigned to the North Coast. But in spite of the new wardens, there still aren't enough patrols to catch every poacher. At the beginning of 2001, the department had 75 unfilled game warden positions in the state -- a shortfall blamed on the low pay wardens earn compared to other law enforcement employees. Consequently, environmentalists suspect the poaching problem is larger than believed. "There's some Darwinism when it comes to catching poachers," said Rocky Daniels, a sport-diver from Cotati who serves on the board of the nonprofit Sonoma County Abalone Network. "They're getting the stupid ones."

But, in truth, there are bigger fish to fry than the poachers who harvest an estimated 50,000 shellfish each year. Legal sport divers harvest 765,000 abalone a year. And since the closure of the southern fishery in 1997, there has been a 27 percent increase in abalone sport diving along the Sonoma and Mendocino coastlines, according to fish and game researchers who examined abalone catch records and conducted diver surveys.

To combat this population decline, the Fish and Game Commission recently voted to reduce bag limits for sports divers from four per day and 100 per year to three per day and 24 per year. The new rules will go into effect when the abalone sport-diving season reopens April 1. But it could well be another case of what San Francisco Chronicle outdoors writer Tom Stienstra has called the right medicine for a patient who's already dead. Even with the commercial and sport diving bans in the south, biologist Haacker doubts the species can be restored in Southern California -- especially the endangered white abalone, with an estimated remaining population of less than 3,000. There's still hope for the North Coast, however, and the department's beefed-up poaching enforcement has helped protect the dying mollusk.

As for Joel Roberts, at one point he and other commercial divers had urged state officials to pursue and prosecute poachers more aggressively. Eventually, they took his advice. And now Roberts could very well be in a prison cell when the state may consider reopening commercial fishing in 2003.

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