The three teen-agers had used screwdrivers to pry several dozen small, black abalone from their habitat on the rocky point in south Laguna Beach, then laid out the tasty shellfish, meat side up, in the sand.
They said they weren't interested in making a meal of their catch, but were merely waiting for the sun to dry out the animals so they could give the colorful shells to their girlfriends.
The act was more than just annoying. It was poaching, a crime punishable by fines of $25 plus $5 for each abalone taken.
Abalone hunting is illegal along the coast from Dana Point to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, under a 7-year-old moratorium designed to give the beleaguered shellfish a chance to increase its depleted numbers. State Department of Fish and Game officials say poachers--mostly "tide pickers," who grab the abalone off the rocks at low tide, and some divers who go for the larger, tastier varieties off shore--present the biggest obstacle to their painstaking efforts.
A Delicate Balance
"The people who go into the tide pools and say, 'Well, we'll just take a few abalone, it couldn't make that much difference,' don't realize that every poaching incident upsets the very delicate balance that we're trying to achieve," said Ken Wilson, a marine biologist working out of the department's Long Beach office.
Abalone thrived in great numbers along the coast until the 1940s and 1950s, when their numbers began to dwindle, he said. Probably the biggest causes were commercial and sportfishing and a boom in the popularity of scuba diving, coupled with pollution that decimated the abalone's main food source, the giant kelp beds, and increases in ocean temperature, such as a three-year-long El Nino phenomenon in the late 1950s and another in recent years.
In addition, he said, the mass fishing of lobster and sheephead fish removed natural enemies of the sea urchin, which competes with the abalone for kelp. The durable urchin also appears to thrive on the sewage and other pollution in the water.
Depleted Areas Restocked
Now the state is moving to save the abalone, largely by transplanting specimens raised in concrete containers to strategic locations, then sending workers to check on them monthly, for a year. The department also is working on re-establishing the kelp beds.
Dave Parker, a marine biologist in charge of the department's "abalone enhancement team," said several efforts have been made over the years, mostly at Laguna Beach and off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The most recent, a planting of about 2,000 green abalone, has survived well and a recheck is due within a few months, he said.
"I would say that they are coming back over what we had 10 years ago," he said. "But we're still nowhere near the 1950 levels."
Although poaching happens in Orange County, said Fish and Game Capt. Rod Shackelford, about 75% of the violations occur along the Palos Verdes Peninsula. "There's just too many people around (in Orange County) for the big tide pickers or poachers," he said. "And we seem to have a lot of environmentally concerned people who don't let them get away with it. There are a lot of vigilantes out there."
The cliffs of the peninsula provide cover for poachers, and the beach isn't patrolled as well as in Orange County, where lifeguards keep an eye out for bathers with buckets of abalone.
In fact, the only enforcement at that end of the protected stretch of coastline is done by the Fish and Game wardens.
On one recent afternoon, Warden Todd Tognazzini stood on a cliff overlooking Point Vicente, peering through a telescope at five men on the beach below. The more he saw, the more suspicious he became.
"They're eating something in shells," Tognazzini said. "It could be abalone, or it could be peanuts."
Tognazzini wasn't taking chances. He descended the winding trail to where the men were camped, but found they were eating limpets, "the poor man's abalone."
The warden returned to his car to continue patrolling the coast.
"You have to be pretty good at climbing up and down cliffs," Tognazzini said. "And sneaking up behind people."
All Sorts Poach
The wardens say that the patrols have become a cat-and-mouse game. Tognazzini said poachers have become more sophisticated, and resort to tactics such as posting children as lookouts atop the bluffs or having someone drop them off so there is no parked car to give them away. Sometimes, poachers simply build a fire and eat their catch on the spot.
"I'd say there isn't any particular group of people doing the poaching," Fish and Game Lt. Michael McBride said. "We've had everyone from 80-year-old ladies to pre-teen-agers helping their parents. Everyone has been caught with their hands in the cookie jar, as far as abalone are concerned."
"It doesn't matter what time of day it is," said Bob Johnson, chief aquarist at the Cabrillo Beach Marine Museum, San Pedro, who is involved in the replanting of abalone confiscated from poachers. "I chase them out of the beach area around here all the time. I've seen them with buckets of abalone."
Ralph Sugg, one of two wardens who cover the Orange County coast, said they average one to two citations a week, and most of the poaching occurs in two secluded areas.
Sugg stakes out one of the trouble spots about an hour before low tide, and watches for suspicious activity through a telescope. Most of the citations involve small-scale poaching, but there are occasional large hauls, such as when two men were caught with 139 abalone in 1981.
"They're taking 1- to 5-inch abalone, and 5 inches is the legal size," he said. "So even without the moratorium, they'd be breaking the law."
Fish and Game officials say a variety of abalone can be found in the coastal waters, including the red abalone, the one most often harvested for commercial purposes, and the black abalone, which is abundant in a number of places along the California coastline and is the most common abalone in the protected area.
The black abalone ranks low in gastronomic preference, because its meat, which tastes similar to squid, is tougher than that of its cousins.
Parker said that, as part of the effort to reverse the sinking fortunes of the abalone, the ban along a 40-mile stretch of coastline was enacted in 1977. In 1982, it was extended for another five years.
North and south of the protected zone, Fish and Game regulations permit sport fishermen to take up to four abalone from Southern California waters during one outing.
In addition, rules call for the abalone, which cling to the sides of caves or rocks, to be taken with the proper tool, called an "abalone iron." It allows the fisherman to pry the shellfish loose without harming it, so it can be put back if it is undersized. Knives, screwdrivers and similar objects are illegal, because abalone bleed easily.
Black abalone, which can be plucked from the beach, are especially vulnerable to poaching. Aquarist Johnson said the problem around the breakwater in San Pedro, a favorite spot of black abalone poachers, is serious. He said has seen the beach littered with thousands of abalone shells discarded by poachers.
"It is devastating them," Johnson said. "Absolutely devastating them."