Scott Cohen, with confiscated red abalone.

Courtesy Photo

Scott Cohen, with confiscated red abalone.

Alleged Abalone Poachers Caught

Four Men Nabbed with Four Massive Abs in Santa Barbara Harbor

Thursday, December 13, 2012
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In the first bust of commercial fishermen for poaching abalone since the shell-residing mollusk was protected in Southern California 15 years ago, four men were caught with four abalone on an urchin diving boat in the Santa Barbara Harbor the day before Thanksgiving. Three of the men, John Bolton, Robert Laumer, and David Abernathy, were registered as urchin fishermen from Santa Barbara, while the fourth, Richard Gallo from New York, was not a licensed fishermen but is still implicated in the charges, which are now being considered by the Santa Barbara District Attorney.

The booty was likely harvested from the seas around San Miguel Island, which is the epicenter of the species’ comeback after decades of overfishing and disease nearly wiped it out of the region completely. To help save the species, the state banned any take of abalone — whether the red, black, pink, or white varieties — in 1997 for waters south of San Francisco Bay, and only allowed red abalone to be harvested seasonally to the north. While sport divers are occasionally caught with illicit abs (usually for violations of size, quantity, and methods in Northern California), commercial fishermen have kept their hands clean, until now.

The alleged poachers were caught by California Department of Fish & Game wardens on November 21 after sundown when their 35-foot boat returned from a two-day trip to San Miguel Island. When warden Scott Cohen approached the boat, the four men scurried into the cabin and wouldn’t come out. Upon entering the cabin to find documents “flying everywhere,” Cohen believed that the men had committed “paperwork violations,” such as not filling out the details of catch sizes and fishing locations. As he went ashore with piles of papers in his arms to check — indeed, they hadn’t filled out anything — warden Santos Cabral searched the boat, began measuring the urchin, and found an abalone shell, a minor violation that prompted a more thorough search.

That’s when Cabral found, stashed beneath a bench deep in the cabin, a wetsuit stuffed with the four trophy-sized abalone, including one that measured more than 10 inches across. Another two empty abalone shells were also located. When confronted, the men played dumb. “No one knew where they came from,” said Cohen, explaining that it was unclear whether they’d planned to eat the abs or sell them on the black market, where they could fetch up to $150 a piece. (Despite the wardens’ efforts to return the abs to the ocean, they died and are now in an evidence freezer.)

The bust made both wardens wonder whether other urchin divers could be poaching, as urchins (which fetch between 60 cents and $1.25 each) and $100-per-pluck abalone live on the same reefs. “They’re out there diving within hand’s reach,” said Cabral. “The temptation could be great.” Cohen even thought back to other boats he’s searched, explaining, “Those boats are so complex that if someone knows what they’re doing, you can hide something very well.” (Multiple attempts to contact urchin-diving and commercial-fishing representatives for this story were unsuccessful.)

The abs almost certainly were harvested within the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary, the superintendent of which, Chris Mobley, praised the wardens’ work via email on Tuesday from San Diego, where, coincidentally, he was at an informational hearing about opening up San Miguel’s abalone for fishing again. (State staff advised against the idea, which had been proposed by the California Abalone Marketing Association.) “We will not succeed in protecting and restoring abalone without effective enforcement,” said Mobley, explaining that while a network of agencies are involved, “the state’s Fish and Game wardens are our first line of defense when it comes to abalone.”

But that line of defense is admittedly porous, as California only has about 300 wardens statewide, and just two in Santa Barbara County, numbers that are actually higher than in years’ past. Cohen believes that the Santa Barbara Harbor alone could use a full-time warden. “It might be small,” he said, “but it does have a huge commercial fleet.” Meanwhile, the Fish and Game wardens do their best to be a presence even when they’re not nearby. “We try to fly the flag with maximum exposure,” said Cabral, explaining that the Thanksgiving-eve sting was just one way to keep people thinking: “Be careful what you’re doing out there, and play by the rules because you never know when one of those game wardens might pop out.”


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Kudos to these wardens, glad to see they caught the poachers. Commercial fishermen should know better and they should protect our resources. This gives all commercial fishermen a bad rap. I hope other fishermen will put pressure on themselves to keep the industry clean. Just another form of greed.

speakfreely (anonymous profile)
December 13, 2012 at 2:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I am trying to figure out the "alleged" part in this story. There was an abalone infestation on the boat? The abalone went tandom surfing and forgot to take off their collective wetsuit? Spock beamed them aboard? Me thinks this goes on a whole lot more than is thought. By catch? Nahhh...The deck is already stacked when it comes to commercial vs sport. Like the post above says, how greedy can people get?

bimboteskie (anonymous profile)
December 13, 2012 at 2:32 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The abalone slipped and fell into their boat.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
December 13, 2012 at 5:12 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Is this John Bolton the Noozhawk John Bolton whom you recently gave praise to?

WooWoo (anonymous profile)
December 13, 2012 at 10:09 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I am ignoring the "idiotic: comments of some. What a great article; and what great actions of such an understaffed group doing a terrific job of stopping "poaching"!

This is a problem all over the world. Here; and in Africa.....everywhere!

I am delighted that the abalone poachers were caught! I hope they will be prosecuted!!! And punished seriously!!!
Shame on them!!!!!!!!!


penelopeb (anonymous profile)
December 14, 2012 at 12:26 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I forgot to say: "Throw the book at them"!

I hope they are sentenced to the longest time possible under the law.
Animals and wildlife have no way to protect themselves from these evil "poachers"!

Punitive measures may deter another evil poacher from doing the same thing!
I am hoping the sentences are strong!

penelopeb (anonymous profile)
December 14, 2012 at 12:30 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Maybe it's this John Bolton...this one...who could be related to Tom Bolton or even David Bolton.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
December 14, 2012 at 2:52 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Nail them and get the word out to all the other urchin collectors that da warden is on da hunt!

Barron (anonymous profile)
December 14, 2012 at 9:03 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Idiotic? I think not. What about Michael Bolton? Poaching is not cool obviously. My comment merely addressed the "alleged" part of the story which is hard to fathom. Pardon the pun.

bimboteskie (anonymous profile)
December 14, 2012 at 9:22 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I would hope the Judge would pull their Urchin Permit along with jail time but bet it will only be a slap on the wrist and a small fine.

The F&G busts make good copy. The Courts fail to follow through in stopping this behavior.

I hope Mr. Kettmann does a followup in the Court procedings.

howgreenwasmyvalley (anonymous profile)
December 16, 2012 at 7:45 a.m. (Suggest removal)

These poachers will probably get the same punishment BigOil gets for trashing up our seas & destroying sea life..... Nada! Oh - forgot to exclude those nasty government subsidies slapped on them! At least I don't think these bums will be getting any of those!

OffTheBeat (anonymous profile)
December 16, 2012 at 10:23 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Are there still efforts re-seed the abalone fields?

passagerider (anonymous profile)
December 17, 2012 at 2:06 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Penelope!!!!!!!!!!!!! You need more exclamation points in your posts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

eightdolphins (anonymous profile)
December 17, 2012 at 1:21 p.m. (Suggest removal)

! .10 cents / dozen

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
December 17, 2012 at 1:51 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Penelope!!!!!!!!!!!!! You need more exclamation points in your posts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

eightdolphins (anonymous profile)
December 17, 2012 at 1:21 p.m.


billclausen (anonymous profile)
December 17, 2012 at 2:51 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I am a commercial fisherman, urchin diver and President of Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara (CFSB). CFSB is extremely disappointed to learn of the fishermen poaching our marine resources. We support the efforts of Fish and Game to seek out any fisherman that is blatantly breaking the law. As Matt Kettman’s article explained, illegal fishing and poaching rarely occur among commercial fishermen, but there are the occasional bad apples (as there are in any industry). Commercial fishermen cannot afford to break the law. Fishing is our livelihood. If we break the law, we lose our livelihoods; in turn, we cannot support our families and pay our mortgages in Santa Barbara. In the long term, it is a lot more profitable (ecologically and economically) to legally pick urchins than to poach abalone or practice any illegal fishing. There is too much at stake to fish illegally. Generally, fishermen do self police; we look out for each other and keep each other in check. In this situation, it may have been possible that only one diver participated in the poaching without the others’ knowledge. A main job of commercial fishermen is to ensure the longevity of our marine resources, and it is in our best interest to abide by the management rules of our fisheries. I am frustrated with Kettman’s statement that multiple attempts to contact commercial fishermen were unsuccessful, making it seem like we couldn’t be bothered with this issue. Fishermen fish for a living, and most of us work at the Channel Islands where there are no cell phone connections. I understand that Kettman had a deadline, but he needs to realize that we work underwater for a living, and need more than a day to respond. These are severe accusations that are being made to these commercial fishermen, and CFSB takes this very seriously. We support Fish and Game and the DA’s investigations, and, if found guilty, take their commercial fishing license. Commercial fishing is an honest living, and we seek to keep it that way.

Stephanie Mutz, President CFSB,

CFSB (anonymous profile)
December 18, 2012 at 7:07 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Well, the 5 home invasion robbers in IV with knives who physically attacked occupants got under a year in jail, and 3 of them were black (we all know black guys get harsher sentences, just ask black people, it's true typically). This crime should be a day in jail. Maybe a week with bad behavior.

khiggler (anonymous profile)
January 16, 2013 at 8:33 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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