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Sacramento sushi restaurant owner pleads guilty in abalone poaching case

State officials this year have closed the fishing season for abalone, like these caught by an angler in 2005 along California’s north coast.
State officials this year have closed the fishing season for abalone, like these caught by an angler in 2005 along California’s north coast. Sacramento Bee file

The owner of a Sacramento sushi restaurant has pleaded guilty for his role in an abalone poaching ring, state wildlife officials announced Tuesday.

In 2016, state wildlife officers identified Bryant Lee, owner of the Sushi Cafe in Sacramento’s Land Park neighborhood, as one of the suspects in a north state abalone poaching case that they’d been investigating since 2015.

Lee, 44, pleaded guilty in October in Mendocino County Superior Court to a misdemeanor count of purchasing illegally harvested abalone with the intent to sell it, the Department of Fish and Wildlife announced Tuesday in a news release.

Lee was placed on probation for 36 months and ordered to pay a $40,000 fine. He is prohibited from obtaining a sport or commercial fishing license for life.

Lee’s restaurant on Freeport Boulevard remains open. A woman who answered the phone Tuesday said Lee wasn’t immediately available for comment.

One of Lee’s co-conspirators, Steven Yuan Qin Liang, 47, of Fort Bragg, pleaded guilty in Mendocino County in September to a felony conspiracy charge in the case, the wildlife agency announced.

Liang, the owner of the Asian Buffet restaurant in Fort Bragg, was ordered to serve 360 days in the Mendocino County Jail, placed on probation for 36 months and ordered to pay a $15,000 fine.

Wildlife officers said in 2016 that after inspecting Sushi Cafe, officers served search warrants at several other properties with which Lee was associated. One was a building on property Lee owned in south Sacramento. Inside, officers found a freezer containing 89 packaged abalone.

Abalone, a large shelled saltwater mollusk related to snails, has declined dramatically on California’s north coast in recent years due to environmental conditions. State regulators closed the fishing season this year.

Prior to this year’s fishing ban, harvests were closely regulated. Licensed anglers could only free dive for abalone without the use of oxygen tanks, their abalone had to be of a certain size and they were required to be immediately tagged. When Lee was charged in 2016, only three abalone could be caught per person per day, and no individual could possess more than three abalone at any given time.

Regarded as a delicacy – some believe it has medicinal value – abalone is a frequent target for poachers.

State wildlife officers say that with the fishing season closed, prices on the black market will skyrocket.

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