Tasty, pricey abalone tempt poachers

Their delicate, distinctive flavor puts abalone at the head of the table in cultures from Korea to New Zealand and beyond.

But wild abalone are so rare in the waters off Northern California that they’re illegal to harvest commercially.

The only way it’s legal to enjoy abalone is by diving — without using a boat or breathing equipment — way underwater to dislodge the large, bottom-dwelling sea snails sucking hard onto a rock. Simply put, that’s not easy.

It’s in this strictly regulated and enforced environment that we bring you the story of Paul Chak Po Mak and Samuel Xing Sin, both of Oakland. The pair were arrested at their homes Thursday and charged with together poaching 84 abalone over the last month.

Department of Fish and Game wardens observed the pair taking “large overlimits” of abalone during an investigation they called “Operation Scoop and Run.” Mak, 61, is accused of illegally taking 52 abalone. Sin, 41, is charged with taking 32.

This isn’t the first run-in for either man. Sin has a pending abalone case in Mendocino, and Mak is on probation in Sonoma County.

To be legal, divers are required to have fishing licenses and abalone report cards, and to tag and tally their take. Abalone report cards and dive gear were seized at the men’s homes, according to the DFG.

Divers are strictly limited to a take of three red abalone per day and 24 per season. Since anyone can only possess three abalone at a time, divers can “gift” abalone to land-bound friends, allowing them to dive again the next day to bag their limit.

The DFG reported the men allegedly targeted large, valuable abalone, with one measuring 10 and 3/4 inches across. Abalone can fetch $100 on the black market, with larger ones worth much more.

DFG Captain Bob Farrell said in a statement that the draw of profits from poaching seems to outweigh the penalties:

“Profit remains the primary motive for abalone poachers. … It is clear – and disappointing – that penalties from prior convictions failed to deter either of these men.”