Sonoma County Profile

The Sonoma County Abalone Network (SCAN)

(This description of SCAN was provided by Rocky Daniels. Only minor editorial changes have been made. See the May, 2004 addendum below.)

Abalone is a shellfish in great demand worldwide as a seafood delicacy. Although abalone are found in temperate nearshore waters throughout much of the world, California's indigenous "Red Abalone" (Haliotis rufenscens) is the largest species found anywhere in the world. The quantity and quantity of the meat available from each Red Abalone, coupled with increasing market demand, has resulted in a commercial landing value that exceeds $50 per animal. Once the product makes its way into restaurants and seafood markets, the retail value can easily exceed $100 per pound. As a result of regulatory and legislative actions dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, commercial harvesting of abalone north of San Francisco has been banned. During the same period, recreational harvesting has been limited to breathhold techniques only; use of SCUBA equipment north of San Francisco is strictly prohibited

One result of these regulations is a very healthy abalone resource in waters north of San Francisco. Annual sport take has been estimated at 2 to 3 million pounds and has been valued in excess of $10,000,000 to the coastal economies. South of San Francisco, which has 83% of the state's abalone habitat, decades of commercial harvesting and recreational harvesting using SCUBA equipment has resulted in a seriously depleted resource. The 1996 commercial landings from those waters was less than 160,000 pounds. Unfortunately, the healthy abundance of abalone north of San Francisco motivates very lucrative illegal harvesting that, by some estimates, equals 50% of the legal landings on the north coast.

The Sonoma County Abalone Network (SCAN) was formed in 1994 by George Lawry in response to persistent reports of abalone poaching from Sonoma County waters. These reports ranged from petty violations of fish and game regulations to full-scale commercial operations that have pilfered the public's marine assets. SCAN's initial focus, out of necessity, has been on petty violators. New recreational harvesters often learn how to harvest abalone from someone more experienced. In addition to lore, they also learn about abalone harvesting regulations from these same sources. Unfortunately, this often results in inadequate understanding of the regulations and potentially of fish and game citations. Fines start at $500 and escalate from there.

SCAN's initial and ongoing focus has been to educate the diving public on how to interpret abalone regulations. This is done by maintaining a presence at popular dive sites and taking every opportunity to unobtrusively establish a dialog with the divers. This activity is an integral part of SCAN's Coast Patrol program.

SCAN is also involved in a Court Watch program. In late 1995, details of a local court settlement involving a major abalone poaching ring became public. Under the deal approved by the presiding judge, the leaders of a poaching ring responsible for plundering the Sonoma County coast of more than 20 tons of abalone over a 1 year period would face maximum penalties of 6 months county jail and $40,000 fines. Considering the magnitude of the loss to the citizens of California and the county as well as the financial motivations of the perpetrators, it was clear that the local court system was unaware of the importance of this resource to a large segment of the community or the dire consequences of this type of activity on the marine environment. SCAN was instrumental in organizing the presence of more than 45 concerned citizens at the sentencing hearing of the defendants and by providing the judicial system with more than 130 letters from all over the world protesting the light sentencing. SCAN maintained a regular courtroom presence throughout the eight months of trials and hearings that followed the original sentencing hearing. In the end, three of the leaders received 2 to 3 year prison terms and $50,000 fines; even the most minor participant received a 2 month jail sentence and $10,000 fine. SCAN continues to maintain a courtroom presence on those occasions when an abalone case is scheduled to be heard.

During the course of the 1995/96 courtroom testimony, SCAN learned that the most basic fishery-dependent data collection by the California Department of Fish and Game had been terminated for budget reasons. Because the data collection involved interviewing divers at the more popular dive sites, SCAN has been able to fill the gap by combining the data collection as part of its Coast Patrol activities. SCAN's participation in this activity for 1996 and 1997 involved in excess of 400 volunteer hours and approximately $1250 in materials and equipment.

Finally, SCAN has occasionally cooperated with law enforcement officials on observations made at the coast.

SCAN receives financial support through membership dues ($10 per year/$250 lifetime) from its base of 230+ members, donations by affiliated organizations and dive clubs, and contributions by individuals. Additional information or membership applications may be obtained by contacting SCAN at P.O. Box 3801, Santa Rosa, CA 95402.

In response to a request for updated information, on Monday, May 17, 2004, Rocky Daniels adds:

SCAN is still active and George Lawry is still in charge. SCAN continues to be active with court actions, legislators and the media. The work we were doing with the creel surveys has been taken over by DFG but recent budget cuts will threaten their efforts and make it incumbent on SCAN and the diving public to continue that work.

On the poaching front, the biggest change is the reduction in law enforcement. DFG has been hit pretty hard with one result being a drop in the number of wardens and the number of overtime hours available to those still on the force. I understand the size of SOU has been reduced as well.

On a more positive note, I believe these reductions come at a time when there are fewer individuals poaching on the sport-to-commercial level. The $64,000 question, though, is the level of commercial poaching--a long standing unknown. I'd refer you to Steve Riske [an SSU CJA Alumni], the DFG Lt. in Bodega Bay, for more details on when it comes to wildlife enforcement.

Take this link to the Recreational Abalone Advisory Committee.

They have current news and a link to a discussion group.