By Tillie Fong
California game wardens arrested 13 suspects in Sacramento and the Bay Area early Thursday for reportedly catching wild abalone off the Northern California coast for the purpose of selling them.
Four of the suspects are from Sacramento: Dung Van Nguyen, 40, Hiep Ho, 46, Hung Van Le, 42, and Tho Than Phan, 59.
Seven were from Oakland: Chinh Quan Le, 60, Khoa Dang Nguyen, 40, Hung Ngoc Quoc Vo, 41, Toi Van Nguyen, 48, Hai Van Ha, 43, Duoc Van Nguyen, 48, and Nhan Trong Le, 46. The first four from Oakland had previous poaching convictions.
Two were from other areas: Andy Phan, 47, of Fairfield and Charlie Le, 55, of Alameda.
All were booked into various county jails. They face poaching, conspiracy and for some of them, perjury charges.
It was not known how much of the shellfish were seized by game wardens Thursday.
"It's a significant case," said Warden Mark Michilizzi, with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement.
"These individuals who take abalone illegally are taking away from other divers who lawfully harvest them, and it's making it hard for Fish and Wildlife to manage the (abalone) population."
The arrests came as a result of Operation Oakland Abalone Syndicate, an investigation that started several years ago, and is still ongoing, so there may be more arrests.
It is illegal to sell harvested wild abalone in California. The abalone that is served in restaurants come from farms.
However, it is legal for residents to dive for abalone for private consumption.
Every year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife issues 30,000 abalone harvest cards to divers. Each card holder is legally allowed to catch 24 of the shellfish per year.
However, Michilizzi said that based on previous studies in the early 2000s, more than 250,000 abalone are poached each year. He believes that at least that number or more are illegally harvested in recent years.
"Anytime there is a market value placed on wildlife, you will see an illegal market for it," he said. A single wild abalone can sell for $100 on the black market.
The suspects arrested Thursday allegedly worked together to profit from the sale of the abalone to a network of black market buyers in the Bay Area and Sacramento.
Michilizzi said many of the alleged poachers have legal abalone cards but have either harvested more than the legal limit, or used false information to obtain the cards.
If convicted of poaching, the suspects will have their fishing licenses revoked, and be barred from obtaining another abalone harvest card.
Poaching is a misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to six months in jail. However, conspiracy and perjury charges may be felonies and carry prison sentences.