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DFG Breaks up Delta Sturgeon Poaching Ring; Four Arrested

April 30, 2004

A two-month investigation into Bay Area sturgeon poaching and distribution from the Carquinez Straits and Benicia to San Jose culminated with four arrests Thursday in several counties, the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) announced today. Two 15-foot sport-fishing vessels used in the illegal take of hundreds of pounds of sturgeon were confiscated as part of the investigation.


Since mid-February, DFG wardens with the Special Operations Unit (SOU) and the Delta Bay Enhanced Enforcement Project (DBEEP) have worked the investigation, dubbed "Tales of the Fish Patrol," to identify the four allegedly involved in the unlawful taking, possessing, transporting, and selling of sturgeon, or sturgeon parts. Wardens involved in the operation interviewed approximately a dozen other people believed connected with the case. More arrests are possible, said DFG Lt. Rob Allen, the incident commander for the case.

"This is one of many groups that are commercializing the catch of white sturgeon within the Bay Area," Allen said. "There is too much commercialization of this fishery. And because of that, the sturgeon population is getting hammered by poachers."

Wardens arrested John Burdell Gonzales, 26, of Concord late Thursday afternoon in Emeryville as he came off a commercial party boat he had served on as a part-time deckhand. Investigators consider Gonzales the most active poacher in the group.

Also booked were Shawn Patrick Ryan Taylor, 24, of El Sobrante, Tuan Truong Le, 44, and Ben Quoc Le, 22, both of San Jose.

All four suspects face felony charges of conspiracy to illegally sell sturgeon, unlawful sale of sport-caught fish, and unlawful use of multiple rods. They were all booked into Contra Costa County Jail on $10,000 bail.

Gonzales also faces three counts of unlawful take of an over limit, and unlawful use of a gaff on sturgeon. Taylor faces an addition charge of possession of unlawfully taken game, and two counts of unlawful gaffing of sturgeon.

A suspect convicted of felony conspiracy is subject to a maximum fine of $15,000 and three years in state prison, Allen said. Each non-felony charge is subject to up to $1,000 fine and a year in county jail. That is in addition to the potential loss of fishing privileges for life.

The SOU is DFG's covert law enforcement component. The unit employs undercover officers for long and short-term assignments to apprehend unlawful commercial poaching operations. Past cases have involved the unlawful sale of caviar, abalone, reptiles, and bear parts.

DBEEP is a special project funded by the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to provide additional patrol efforts in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, and the major river drainages that feed it, as well as the San Francisco Bay Area. The unit focuses on the anadramous fisheries in the delta; salmon, striped bass and sturgeon.

DFG launched "Tales of the Fish Patrol" after a confidential informant alerted wardens to the suspected poaching. Wardens were able to watch the suspects for several weeks as they traveled the waterways between Benicia to Martinez and near the famed "Mothball Fleet" in Suisun Bay.

"Following them on nearly a daily basis was the only way to catch these suspects," said Allen. "They were constantly on the watch for anything that looked like law enforcement surveillance. They used binoculars, walkie-talkies, cellular phones."

Investigators believe interviews with other people may lead to further charges, and possibly other suspects. The investigation uncovered no immediate evidence of poaching for caviar. Sturgeon is mostly poached for the caviar, called "roe" which is only found in females and sells for up to several hundred dollars per pound on the black market.

White sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) is a fish species indigenous to the Sacramento River in California, and the Columbia River in Washington. It is not listed under federal protection in California, but the Kootenai population of white sturgeon in Idaho and Montana is federally listed as endangered.

California does not allow for the commercial catch or sale of white sturgeon. Currently, one fish per day can be legally taken for sport between the sizes of 46 to 72 inches in length.

In May of 2003, a two-year joint federal and tri-state investigation into a network of sturgeon poachers culminated with 10 arrests in the Sacramento area. About two weeks later, based on subsequent interviews, DFG arrested another 12 in the case, bringing the total to 22.

White sturgeon is one of the most spectacular native species in the state. They live a long time - approximately 50 years or more - and grow to a size of 400 to 500 pounds and larger. Females do not reproduce until they are about 14 years old. Populations were severely depleted by unrestricted commercial fishing in the last two decades of the 1800s in both the Columbia and the Sacramento-San Joaquin systems and as a result, California imposed a total closure of the sturgeon fishery from 1916 until 1955. Since that time, sturgeon can only be taken through sport fishing regulated by a closely managed slot limit, which is currently one take/possession per day.

Sturgeon populations vary through time and are affected by drought conditions, long-term exposure to chemical contaminants, collisions with boat and ship propellers, and other causes.

Populations peaked in the mid 1960s, the mid 1980s and the late 1990s. In 1997 the white sturgeon population was estimated at 147,000, probably the highest population since before 1900. The present population is estimated at 70,000 with a present annual harvest rate of 5 percent.

Editor's Note: DFG film footage of Thursday's "Tales of the Fish Patrol" takedown is available by calling Matt Elyash at (916) 275-8017. Still photographs are also available at



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