Taking on the new market hunters

Market hunting is long gone, thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, right?


That was the old market hunting, in which people openly shot wild game for food, hides, horns, feathers and, in the case of buffalo, maybe just tongues.

The original Lacey Act of 1900, subsequent amendments and the establishment of state wildlife agencies stopped open market hunting more than a century ago.

The new market hunting — illegal black-market trading in fish, wildlife and plants — is all too alive, especially in California, where the state's beleaguered game wardens recently took bold steps to combat illegal commercial wildlife harvest and sales.

On June 28, a swarm of green trucks descended on the fire station in Cordelia, Calif., as 85 sworn law enforcement officers — state game wardens, prosecuting attorneys from four counties and federal special agents — and 12 support staff, came together for a briefing on three cases involving illegal take, possession, distribution and sales of sturgeon and abalone.

Nancy Foley, the Department of Fish and Game Chief of Enforcement, greeted the group, which included some media, yours truly among the reporters.

She reminded us that 10 years ago it was estimated illegal wildlife trafficking in California was worth $100 million a year. She sighed, then said, "And it's getting worse, exponentially," in large part because the state Department of Fish and Game is hit hard by budget cuts.

Species like sturgeon and abalone are especially vulnerable; they are slow to reproduce, which results in their numbers being decimated more easily. And they are both worth a lot of money.

For example, earlier this year the DFG recommended that the state enact emergency regulations after a survey last fall showed legal-size sturgeon were at a 50-year low of about 10,000 in the Sacramento River and those numbers might not increase for the next 10 years.

The regulations, approved by the state Fish and Game Commission last March, retained a one-fish daily bag and possession limit but reduced the maximum size limit that may be taken or possessed from 72 inches total length to 56 inches.

It is illegal in California to sell sturgeon or sturgeon parts. Sturgeon often is poached for the eggs, or roe, and processed into caviar.

"Caviar can fetch up to $165 per pound on the black market," Foley said.

In high-end restaurants, this same sturgeon caviar can retail for more than $100 an ounce, she added. Add in the value of the meat, and a poacher can get $2,000 for a big female with roe.

The Sonoma-Mendocino coast has one of the last viable populations of red abalone in the world, but continued poaching has put great pressure on these dinner-plate-size mollusks.

The abalone sport season is open only north of San Francisco Bay, from April 1 through June 30 and Aug. 1 to Nov. 30. The legal bag limit has been reduced to three per day and 24 per season for abalone 7 inches and longer.

Wild abalone cannot be sold commercially in California, yet they can fetch between $60 and $100 each on the black market, depending on the size.

As an illustration of what happens when wardens are scarce, DFG operated two vehicle checkpoints on Highway 128 in Mendocino County and Highway 1 in Sonoma County earlier this summer, inspecting a total of 552 vehicles. Wardens issued a total of 107 citations, and confiscated 144 illegal abalone.

Chief Foley then introduced members of the undercover S.O.U. (Special Operations Unit) task force who briefed us on the three cases — Operations Dos Robles, Mahalo, and Delta Beluga III — and showed surveillance video and still shots of the 20 people with arrest warrants, seven places targeted for search warrants and another dozen "people of interest" to be interviewed.

It was noted that since these cases involved groups of people interacting to commit a crime, these were conspiracy felonies, which could count toward California's "three strikes" program. This meant harsher penalties for offenders, but also raised the stakes of people resisting and eluding arrest.

After the briefing, the group broke into 29 teams of wardens that would be deployed to Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Hayward, Fort Bragg and Mission Viejo. We also were told about another suspect who would be arrested in Oregon.

It's important to note here that because wardens are spread so thin — 200 in the field for the state — coordinated efforts like this take time, planning and a lot of cooperation, as wardens normally work alone.

And the operations have to be done in secrecy both to catch the criminals and to not alert people in the wardens' regular districts that no one will be around on such and such a day.

For each targeted suspect, the team received a lengthy folder that contained photos, videotape, floppy discs, maps, warrants and staging instructions. Four hours later, the teams headed out to do surveillance of the locations they would target the next morning.

After a very short night at a motel in Oakland, the team I was assigned to met at its staging area — a reservoir for the Oakland Municipal Water District — which just happened to be about six blocks from the homes of two suspects for which we had warrants.

The reservoir provided a convenient cover. Several early-morning dog walkers passed by and asked why game wardens were here. Lt. Jerry Karnow, my ride-along warden, replied that we were here to check on fish in the reservoir. Great ruse. Karnow could be a good actor.

At precisely 7, the "time of action" call came over the radio from the central command post and our three green pick-ups sped off.

All 29 teams began action simultaneously to prevent people making calls to warn others of the takedown, as most of these scofflaws knew each other and one has to assume most everyone has a cell phone.

Our two suspects lived right next door to each other in south Oakland, which was convenient, as well as risky. As two wardens began knocking of the door of each house, I could see shades going up in the houses upstairs, as well as in surrounding neighborhood homes. You hope for the best and keep alert for anything else at times like this.

The two suspects surrendered quietly. One of them had a prior felony conviction for assault with a deadly weapon and making terrorist threats, so all of us breathed a sigh of relief as they stood quietly to be searched and handcuffed. But then people started pouring out of the houses. The daughter of one of the men started yelling and swearing.

Three Oakland Police cruisers arrived for backup. The officers told us that just a few blocks away an Oakland police officer had recently shot and killed someone in an arrest, so tensions were already high in the neighborhood.

After the two men were on their way to the jail, we went after the third person on the list, a person-of-interest, to be interviewed. He lived only about a block away. Unfortunately, he had "just left to play tennis" his sister told the wardens. I noticed a large landing net tucked in a corner beside the house. This guy was later implicated by one of the arrestees as a supplier.

En route to the jail, the results came in from the Incident Command Center. Teams had bagged 17 of the 20 with arrest warrants, and several more offenders were implicated in interviews with those arrested. No one was hurt.

Two restaurants in San Francisco — Bob's Sushi House and the China House — were searched with TV news cameras watching. The effect this will have on their business may be far greater than the penalties they may receive for illegal purchase of abalone.

At a press conference that afternoon Foley said, "Today, we took a step toward knocking down the significant amount of poaching that continues to imperil sturgeon and abalone in California. We will continue to send the message that DFG has zero tolerance when it comes to the illegal commercialization of fish and wildlife resources."

Since conspiracy is involved in these three cases, some of those arrested can expect fines upward of $40,000, jail time, forfeiture of vehicles and equipment and loss of their sport licenses.

While executing the arrest and search warrants, the DFG seized a variety of evidence, including salmon and sturgeon roe, sturgeon meat, abalone, shark fins, sea cucumbers and caviar processing materials.

As the operation wound down, I asked Foley about her feelings. She was very happy the operation had gone so smoothly and no one had been hurt. The sad thing, she said, was that this was really just the tip of the iceberg.

Not only does Foley have only 200 wardens for the entire state, but because of budget limitations there is only one Special Operations Unit for the entire state. She said she could easily use a half-dozen such units, as well as many more wardens to protect the state's natural resources.

The next time you go out fishing for abalone or sturgeon and you get skunked, don't blame the weather or the phase of the moon. Know that the chances are that you did not catch anything because the poachers got there first.

The Thin Green Line of California game wardens needs more people and better pay. No wardens, no wildlife; it's that simple.

One final observation is that the state's secret-witness program, Cal-Tip, was invaluable in the success of this operation.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.