Jail sentences for North Coast abalone poachers highlighted as state braces for closure of fishery

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A Bay Area man who required a cliff rescue amid his crime and a Fort Bragg restaurateur are among about 200 people prosecuted for illegal harvest or trade of abalone caught off the Mendocino Coast last year, authorities said.

Where poachers often face fines and temporary abalone fishing bans, both men additionally were given jail time and three years probation in cases highlighted this week by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Wildlife officials spotlighted the cases in anticipation of rising black-market values they fear could prompt a wave of poaching and illegal sales as game wardens seek to enforce an unprecedented statewide shutdown this year of the ailing red abalone fishery.

Steven Yuan Qin Liang, owner of the Asian Buffet restaurant on Fort Bragg’s South Franklin Street, was arrested and charged after shelling out $5,000 for 107 small abalone in a sale that occurred while he was the subject of an undercover investigation begun in 2015, officials said.

He pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy and was sentenced in September to 360 days in jail and three months probation, though much of his jail term later was converted to home detention by Mendocino County authorities, officials said. Liang, 47, also was fined $15,000 and banned for life from obtaining a sport or commercial fishing license.

A second restaurateur caught up in the case, Bryant Chiu Shiu Lee, owner of the Sushi Cafe in Sacramento, avoided jail time but was fined $40,000 and given three years of probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for purchasing abalone for black market resale, officials said. He also was banned for life from obtaining a fishing license.

The odder case involves an Alameda man, Justin Joseph Adams, 44, who is serving 210 days in the Mendocino County Jail. He rose to the attention of authorities last April, when he became stranded halfway up a steep coastal cliff in the community of Elk in the dark of night, authorities said.

Following his rescue, wardens suspicious of his activity the previous night dove nearby and swam over to the water’s edge at the base of the cliff where he’d been found. There, tucked in a deep cut under the bluff, they found two bags containing a combined 38 abalone, officials said. They also found a half-consumed water bottle, with traces of DNA that matched Adams, though they already were sure it was his, said Mendocino County Fish and Wildlife Warden Don Powers.

Well known on the coast for his dogged pursuit of poachers, Powers said examination of the area revealed a narrow cave through which he thinks Adams entered the area at low tide, only to find it blocked off when the tide came in.

A girlfriend, who had dropped him off, became so concerned when he failed to rendezvous later that she called for help, despite the admonitions of a second man, a lookout, Powers said.

Adams eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy and was fined $15,000, though a judge suspended all but $5,000 of the penalty. He also was given three years of probation and a lifetime ban on sport or commercial fishing.

Illegal commercial sales of the prized mollusks long ago became sufficiently profitable to support a thriving black market reaching all the way to Asia. But with the fishery closed, it will be harder for poachers to masquerade as law-abiding divers and rock pickers, likely lowering the volume and raising the price of illegally harvested and sold shellfish, agency personnel said.

“They’ve generally been worth about $100 a piece,” said Powers. “Now, if that starts creeping up, that’s a good payday.”

Poachers have long been the scourge of fishery regulators and those who love the sport of abalone hunting, which has been subject to ever-tighter limits in recent years because of diminishing abalone numbers and poor environmental conditions.

Red abalone are only legal to fish for sport purposes. It is illegal to sell them.

Wildlife officials say poachers may be responsible for as much as half of the shellfish removed from North Coast waters each year, though the scale and level of sophistication varies widely. Some are sport divers who take too many, or take them too small, or who high grade — meaning they throw smaller abalone back in the water to die after finding something bigger.

Wardens over the years have uncovered high-value, black-market rings responsible for the illegal catch of hundreds of mollusks traded in parking lots, nail salons and back alleys for profit.

About 240,000 on average have been legally caught each year between 2002 and 2015, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Fish and Wildlife personnel issued 201 citations last year in Mendocino County and 77 in Sonoma County related to violations of the abalone harvest regulations.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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