Before I walked into the Ten Mile Courthouse building in Fort Bragg on a Tuesday morning I read a bumper sticker on a large pickup truck parked on the street out front: “My husband said he'll leave me if I go diving one more time… I'm sure going to miss him.”
Inside the lobby I sat in front of the bathrooms and watched the room fill before the morning cases. A sad gray-haired man with drooping mustache placed his metal objects into the little blue basket that's fed through the X-ray machine. He looked like the walrus from Alice in Wonderland.
Bailiff Kent Rogers propped the courtroom door open and we went inside. Shane D. Bramlett was arraigned on a misdemeanor Fish and Game charge for “failure to reattach undersize abalone.” Mr. Bramlett stood at the defendant table alone.
“Do you need a lawyer?” Judge Clayton Brennan asked Bramlett. Brennan told him that his charges carried “bulky” penalties.
“Can I give my side of the story?” Bramlett asked the court. Brennan told him he did not have to say anything, that everything he said could potentially be used against him if he pleaded not guilty and his case went to trial.
“Every word you say is taken down,” Brennan warned him. Bramlett was very unprepared. He appeared extremely confused and uncertain.
“I would like to take responsibility for my actions. He [the Fish and Game warden] told me when I swam back down I reattached the abalone to the wrong rock.”
Bramlett said there was a lot of confusion at the scene, that he noticed two more attached abalone on another rock as he dove underwater to reattach his undersized abalone at the warden's demand. Bramlett thought the Fish and Game warden had possibly mistaken one of these for his undersized abalone. He was taking responsibility for the crime and attempting to explain his innocence simultaneously. He was about 30 years old wearing a goatee and a plaid shirt.
“I really respect the law and stuff,” Bramlett continued. “I'm getting ready to get back to work so I'm going to plead guilty.”
Brennan told him he was potentially facing six months in jail or one year probation, forfeit of all diving equipment, $1271 fine, $25 administration fee, $40 court free, $100 restitution fine.
“Could I talk to a lawyer right now? What you just said makes me nervous, Bramlett said.”
Brennan said he could appoint him counsel, if he did not have a regular job.
“Are you on probation right now?”
“Not that I'm aware of.”
Bramlett teetered awkwardly on the legal fence before deciding to get the case over with. The official charge Bramlett faced was “failure to reattach an undersized abalone” on April 11th of 2011.
“What is your plea to that charge?” asked Brennan.
“Guilty,” said Bramlett nervously.
Brennan read him his sentence; 12 months probation, $1,385 fine, $40 security fee, $15 “preservation fund,” prohibited from having Fish and Game license while on probation, forfeit of all equipment seized.
“Good luck on your probation,” said Brennan.
Brennan soon called Kyui N. Lee to the stand.
“Do you speak English, sir?”
Mr. Lee was in court for taking one abalone over the three per day per person limit. He also faced a charge for “Removing abalone from shell prior to consumption.” Brennan explained to Lee what he had told Bramlett, that abalone charges carry serious penalties, even for having one abalone over the limit. Lee needed a lawyer.
“How do you support yourself?”
Lee has salt and pepper hair, wore a wool suit with slightly different plaid patterns on the trousers and jacket. He appeared confused just as Bramlett had.
“Food stamps from the government,” Lee answered.
Brennan appointed public defender Thomas Croak to Kyui Lee's case and passed on the matter until later so Croak and Lee could discuss strategy.
Brennan called a third abalone case of the morning, a 21-year old girl named Rebekah Ramos who, on the 23rd of April, was found in possession of an abalone that was a fraction of an inch smaller than the seven inch size limit. She was also appointed to public defender Croak, who passed the matter until later in the morning so he could talk to Ramos.
Controversies and scandals surrounding the edible sea snail are not a uniquely California phenomenon.
Abalone are part of the Haliotidae family. There are approximately 100 abalone species recognized throughout the world. They cling to rocks with a muscular foot, which is the edible part. A global black market exists for the abalone, creating bizarre legal and criminal cultures. The sport of harvesting is embedded in many cultures along coastlines where the abalone lives and breeds.
In New Zealand abalone are called paua, a Maori word for the sea snail. The Maori are the native people of New Zealand, and were granted customary rights to the endangered paua. Poaching of paua in New Zealand is widespread and carries heavy penalties as it does in California.
From Australia, and Tasmania in particular where abalone are called muttonshells or muttonfish, the world receives 25% of its harvested abalone.
In the British Channel Islands abalone are call ormers. Mass ormering in the second half of the 19th century brought about severe depletion. Ormer harvesters in the Channel Islands are not allowed to wear wetsuits or even put their heads underwater. The first known underwater arrest in history took place in the Channel Islands when Mr. Kempthorne-Leigh of Guernsey was arrested by a police officer in full dive gear while illegally harvesting ormers.
In South Africa there is an abalone called perlemoen. In recent years no permits have been issued for perlemoen harvesting because poaching is so widespread. They are now listed as endangered by the South African government. Chinese crime syndicates known as Triad gangs barter raw materials used to make crystal meth for the endangered perlomoen. The gangs then ship the perlomoen back to China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan where they are sold on the black market as a “delicacy and aphrodisiac.” In the Asian market, the sea snail often brings $200 pound. Divers working for syndicates in South Africa can often bring in a ton of perlomoen a day. In South Africa methamphetamines are known as “Tik” and according to The Guardian it “resulted in a 200% surge in drug-related crime in two years.” The barter of perlomoen for meth ingredients eliminates the need for money, therefore avoiding laundering difficulties. In South Africa perlomoen are literally on the brink of extinction.
In California there is an invisible line running down the middle of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. South of that line it is illegal to harvest abalone for sport, north of that line you may harvest in designated areas between April and November, except for July. Abalone must be harvested using only breath holding techniques, no scuba gear is allowed. Abalone divers must have an abalone report card, license, and tags.
The black market, whether it involves rare seafood delicacies, hard drugs, or both is just as vital to the opposing groups, organizations, and bureaus as it is to the criminal element involved.
Croak told Brennan he wanted to discuss the Rebecca Ramos matter privately in the judge’s chamber. Brennan called a recess at 10:15am.
I sat on a bench in front of the probation office door that was open. On the door is a sign: “Please do not enter if you have any cold or flu symptoms.” On the wall inside the office is a hand colored black velvet rendering of a snarling lion padding through a jungle. Sitting on the bench next to me was Jimmy Martinez with short hair on top and long in the back, or as they say “business in the front, party in the back.” He was in court earlier that morning for a DUI from April 13th 2011. He had a long list of priors and special allegations for drunk driving without a license.
Deputy probation officer Damon Lebert walked out of the probation office holding a coffee cup. He dumped the coffee into a large potted tree in front of the vending machines.
“Finally got off summary probation and turned right around and got back on it again,” said a man in a brown corduroy coat talking to Jimmy Martinez. The tattooed security guard stood with inked forearms crisscrossed on top of the x-ray conveyor belt. A snazzy young man walked in front of me confidently and asked if I was waiting in line for the probation office. I said no and he went inside to talk to Mr. Lebert.
“You're not in Ukiah yet?!” said Lebert. “You got to get over there; they are breathing down my neck!” Soon the young man left the office much less confidently than he entered. On the door to the coffee dumping probation officer's individual office was a puffy Garfield sticker.
Kyui Lee sat down near me on a bench, speaking Mandarin Chinese into his cell phone. The only word I understood was “probation” and he said it four or five times. A tall pelican tiptoed in a grassy lot across the street from the Ten Mile Court building with neck fully extended. Behind the Pelican is a gas station garage, beyond that is Highway One, then the abandoned industrialized headlands to the Pacific. If all the doors were kept open in the Ten Mile Court building we would be able to hear the waves on the bluffs during a long silence. The pelican flew away.