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Restaurant owner targeted in abalone trafficking investigation

Wild abalone is somewhat of a rarity in Sacramento restaurants, but the expensive mollusc is considered a delicacy by many.
Wild abalone is somewhat of a rarity in Sacramento restaurants, but the expensive mollusc is considered a delicacy by many. Sacramento Bee file

A Sacramento restaurant owner has been identified as one of four suspects in a state investigation of large-scale trafficking of wild abalone.

Lt. Chris Stoots of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said searches were conducted Thursday at residences and other locations associated with Bryant Lee, owner of the Sushi Cafe in Land Park. The searches culminated a yearlong investigation of suspected trafficking activities in Sacramento and Mendocino counties. The case involves the illegal taking of wild abalone, which often sells for $60 to $70 on the black market, Stoots said.

The sales have been linked to food establishments, both markets and restaurants, although abalone may not appear on their menus, Stoots said.

Law enforcement officers with Fish and Wildlife, as part of their investigative duties, regularly inspect establishments that deal in types of fish that could naturally be found in the wild. Owners must provide documentation for the source of their fish.

After inspecting the Sushi Cafe, officers on Thursday served search warrants at several other properties with which Lee was associated, Stoots said. One was a secondary dwelling unit on property owned by Lee in south Sacramento. He said there was no evidence anyone was living there, but officers found a freezer containing 89 packaged abalone.

Northern California is one of the few areas that allow the recreational harvest of abalone. Some people regard the mollusc as a delicacy and some believe it has medicinal value. Those who dive for abalone must have a fishing license and each abalone must be immediately tagged. The law allows harvesting of only three abalone per person per day, and no individual may possess more than three abalone at any given time, Stoots said.

California does not allow commercial harvest of abalone.

No arrests have been made in the case, but Stoots said Fish and Wildlife plans to file reports with the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office seeking charges against Lee and three other people.

An online search of Sushi Cafe’s menu offerings found no reference to abalone for sale, and the restaurant remains open.

California is home to a small number of commercial abalone farms, including Monterey Abalone Co. and The Abalone Farm in San Luis Obispo County. The farmed abalone are generally much smaller than those grown in the wild. While farmed abalone are roughly the size of a golf ball or baseball, abalone in the wild can grow to the size of a football.

The appetite for abalone remains fairly small in Sacramento. Few restaurants carry commercially farmed abalone on a regular basis, but the mollusc sometimes makes the menu at such high-end restaurants as The Kitchen and Mulvaney’s B&L, along with a variety of Chinese eateries.

Sunh Fish, a leading seafood supplier for Sacramento restaurants, rarely carries abalone because the demand is so low.

“I’m getting 100 calls a day for crab and zero for abalone,” said Nguyen Pham, owner of Sunh Fish. “There’s just no demand. You almost don’t want to carry it. People might see it and associate you with some illegal abalone peddler.”

The appeal of wild abalone is similar to that of foie gras when it was illegal under California law. Both are considered delicacies in some gourmet circles and also have the illicit element that some find tantalizing.

“It’s the rarity of it all,” Pham said. “You’re dealing with something that’s highly regulated and illegal to sell, and it has that kind of black market mentality.”

Cathy Locke: 916-321-5287, @lockecathy

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