More than fishy: Sushi Cafe owner guilty of fueling black market poaching

Abalone season canceled as species struggles to survive

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.
This is an extended version of a story that appears in the February 8, 2018, issue.

The owner of Sushi Cafe on Freeport Boulevard recently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of buying abalone for black market resale. Bryant Lee was slapped with 36 months of probation, a $40,000 fine and a lifetime ban from having a sport or commercial fishing license.

The punishment comes as increasing ocean temperatures kill off massive forests of kelp—the primary food source for these endangered sea snails.

“So they’re literally starving to death and they’re piling up at the bottom of the ocean in the form of empty shells,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife warden Patrick Foy. “For the first time ever, abalone season will not be open for 2018.”

Although California forbids commercial abalone fishing, licensed fishers were allowed to harvest three abalone, so long as the abalone were tagged and the person didn’t possess more than three at once. In 2016, CDFW wardens found a freezer containing 89 packaged abalone on a property owned by Lee.

While Lee wasn’t physically snagging these mollusks himself, he and other restaurant owners supplied the demand for this illicit fishing, Foy said. Lee’s lawyer didn’t return SN&R’s request for comment.

Abalone are a rather uncommon offering in Sacramento. They’re mostly desired by believers in the mollusk’s medicinal value, or connoisseurs of legally precarious delicacies like foie gras. But abalone are vulnerable to overfishing because they grow slowly—taking up to 12 years to reach seven inches, then another half decade to reach eight inches. They also require high-density for their sporadic reproduction, which the CDFW estimates hasn’t been majorly successful since the late 1980s.

If, for whatever reason, reading this made you hungry for abalone, Foy said he hopes “you have a friend that has some in his freezer because that’s about the only way you’re going to get it now.”