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Four Bay Area residents arrested on suspicion of abalone poaching, black market sales

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Four suspected poachers believed to have removed hundreds of red abalone illegally from the beleaguered North Coast fishery were arrested this week at their Bay Area homes at the conclusion of a five-month investigation, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The suspects are part of a larger crew used to collect abalone offshore of Sonoma and Mendocino counties for black market sales to a network of individuals, officials said. It does not appear the shellfish were sold to markets or restaurants.

The suspects — Thepbangon Nonnarath of Oakley, Dennis Nonnarath of El Sobrante and Thu Thi Tran and Cuong Huu Tran, both of San Jose — were arrested on a variety of charges that included conspiracy to commit a crime, as well as illegal commercial sales, falsification of abalone tags and exceeding the season limit of abalone.

Their arrests come as fishery regulators are grappling with a rapid decline in red abalone populations, thanks to shifting ocean conditions that have prompted significant starvation of the prized mollusks, due in part to exploding purple urchin populations that have grazed much of the ocean floor clean.

Abalone fishing, already tightly regulated, has been increasingly restricted as a result. In addition to annual catch limits of 12, only nine of which may be taken south of Mendocino County, two entire months were lopped off the 2017 season, which ends Oct. 31.

Regulators have signaled they may close the fishery altogether next year in hopes the red abalone populations will rebound.

Two of the suspected poachers arrested Wednesday, Thepbangon and Dennis Nonnarath, already were on law enforcement’s radar because they were cited for violations last fall at Moat Creek, a popular abalone hunting grounds near Point Arena in the southwest corner of Mendocino County.

Thepbangon Nonnarath had an earlier abalone poaching conviction, as well, and their conduct with two associates last November prompted suspicions they might be involved in commercial sales, officials said.

In May, Fish and Wildlife wardens observed some of the same individuals engaged in suspicious activities at various sites in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, though Moat Creek was often used, officials said.

Investigators began tracking them and observed a variety of maneuvers they believe were designed to circumvent legal bag limits, in part through falsifying report cards used to track each individual’s daily and annual catch, state Fish and Wildlife Capt. Patrick Foy said. These methods included having extra people on shore who would take credit on their report cards for abalone caught by someone else, allowing those who were diving to remove many more than those to which they were entitled, Foy said.

The suspects also used lookouts and otherwise “were pretty careful” in order to avoid detection, using varying family members and friends, vehicles, harvest sites and times, Foy said.

He said the crew illegally took “hundreds, easily” of the sea snails. And those are just the ones Fish and Wildlife officials know about, Lt. Chris Stoots said.

As the investigation continued, Fish and Wildlife officers traced sales of abalone to a circle of individuals in violation of state law that prohibits their sale and permits their removal from the ocean only for the purpose of recreation.

Foy described it this way: “Literally, they drive to their (the buyer’s) house and open up the trunk, and there’s the cooler, everything’s on ice, just got harvested that morning, and they exchange the money and (are) gone. And they go again the next day.”

He said abalone of legal size, at least 7 inches in length, garnered $100 each, with larger abalone bringing higher prices.

Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement Division Chief David Bess said in a news release that the suspects’ conduct showed “a blatant disregard for the regulations designed to protect California’s abalone resources.”

“Whether it be California abalone or African ivory, wildlife officers will not tolerate trafficking of our wildlife resources,” Bess said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249.

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