Poachers steal millions annually in abalone, sturgeon, and salmon in California.
California is a big-money state between tech, hollywood, and the music business. But under the radar, poachers have started a thriving industry all their own. They won't get much of an IPO, but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that poachers are netting $100 million dollars annually in the state's waters.
"It's all about personal profit. This is not about feeding himself or his family. It's about personal profit," said Fish and Wildlife Officer Patrick Foy.
Foy and his fellow officers have taken to using night vision gadgetry to catch poachers. With such a tempting price tag, though, those methods can only curb the illegal activity.
California's poachers are most attracted to three very lucrative species: abalone, salmon, and sturgeon. Sturgeon are especially prized. A slow breeding cycle and a century of demand for their high-value eggs have combined to devastate sturgeon populations across the world, putting even more pressure on fisheries in California. The caviar of California's green and white sturgeon is considered inferior, and they only started to be heavily fished after the prized beluga caviar was driven to near extinction.
These guys are getting $80 to $100 an ounce. That's a lot of money, and if you look at the amount of eggs a single female fish can produce you are talking about a huge lucrative market and an incentive to poach sturgeon.
The incentive can be up to $30,000 a haul, it turns out.
A 2013 story illustrates just how much damage one poacher can do. Nikolay Krasnodemsky of Sacramento, along with an unnamed partner, were arrested for poaching sturgeon. When Fish and Wildlife officers raided the men's homes they found more than 30 pounds of sturgeon eggs, with dead fish spilling out of garbage cans in the garage. If the figure Foy quoted is accurate, that's $38,400 worth of fish and eggs. When the men were caught, they had already poached 18 sturgeon in 10 days.
"If left unchecked it will bring that population down noticeably to the point where we're going to lose it for everybody," said Foy.
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So, what's the total damage? Struggling sturgeon populations forced Fish & Wildlife to adopt new regulations in 2013. It's estimated that poachers take 250,000 abalone annually, receiving $25 million for their trouble. Officers have arrested hundreds of salmon poachers within just 10 miles of Sacramento, many of them carrying double digits of juvenile silver salmon. Young salmon are especially at risk, because they make perfect bait for larger fish.
Poachers often receive relatively light sentences for all the damage they do. Their gear is confiscated, but their prison terms are short. Krasnodemsky faced a maximum of five years for his charges. While Fish and Wildlife officials struggle to keep up with the poachers, it's an open question whether better enforcement or harsher sentences is the best answer.