17 Arrested in California Exotic Fish-Poaching Bust

A crackdown on the poaching of rare abalone and sturgeon nabbed 17 suspects Thursday in what state officials called one of the largest such busts in California history.

The raids were meant to stem an increase in black market sales of increasingly endangered fish taken from prohibited areas, the Department of Fish and Game said.

"We cannot allow lawbreakers to bring this valuable species to ruin," state Attorney General Bill Lockyer said in a statement. "That is why I will criminally prosecute poachers, and the restaurateurs that buy from them, to the fullest extent of the law."

Sport fishing for red abalone, a prized shellfish, is highly regulated and permitted only north of the San Francisco Bay.

Sturgeon, sought-after for pricey caviar eggs, is also jeopardized by poachers. Caviar can fetch up to $165 a pound on the black market, and game officials said the fish is commanding a greater price because of short supplies of Russian caviar since 2000.

One suspect, Lance Robles, is accused of illegally harvesting red abalone from the Mendocino coast and selling it to the China House Restaurant in San Francisco. The former commercial abalone diver and convicted poacher was charged with two felony counts of conspiracy to harvest abalone from a closed area and selling it commercially, among other charges.

The restaurant declined to comment.

Raids were staged in Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Hayward, Fort Bragg and Mission Viejo. Three suspects remain at large.