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Accused snail poachers say they didn't do it

By KELLY NIX

Published: Dec. 2, 2011

TWO WOMEN who were cited by Pacific Grove police and later charged with illegally taking more than 1,000 sea snails from P.G. tide pools appeared in a Salinas courtroom this week.

Yanli Li and Jing Yang, both from Fremont, were ticketed in May by Pacific Grove Police Sgt. Jeff Fenton for taking up to 40 pounds of black turban snails after he found the mollusks stuffed in buckets inside their van.

“They were going to eat them,” Fenton told The Pine Cone. “The preferred method is boiling them with salt.”

Though the quarter-size, algae-eating snails are considered a delicacy in certain parts of Asia, it’s a misdemeanor to take them from protected areas within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

After being cited, the women were charged in July by the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office for snail thievery. Li was charged with two misdemeanors involving illegal possession of marine life and Yang was charged with four misdemeanors related to the unlawful taking of marine life, according to assistant district attorney, Terry Spitz.

Both women, who pleaded not guilty to the charges in September, were in a Salinas courtroom Wednesday for routine procedures related to the case. They have yet to go to trial.

Operation Stolen Snails unfolded May 30 at about 5:30 p.m. when Fenton was dispatched to a report of people taking marine life from tide pools in the area of Ocean View and Asilomar boulevards. When he arrived, a motorist flagged him down and pointed to a van parked in a turnout.

As soon as Fenton pulled up to the vehicle, one of the women closed the back of the van.

“So I walk over and let them know why I’m contacting them,” Fenton recalled. “And they are dead quiet. They don’t say a word.”

After Fenton asked to take a look in their vehicle, a male who was with the women began speaking to them in a mix of English and Chinese. Li and Yang eventually opened up the van, Fenton said.

“And I look in, and I can see pounds and pounds of snails,” he recalled. “They had them in plastic bags inside buckets.”

Though Fenton said the California Department of Fish and Game usually handles cases where marine life has been taken, local fish and game officers that day were unavailable. Fenton took the case, which included tallying how many snails were in the buckets. “I estimated there were 20 to 40 pounds — over 1,000 snails,” he said.

When the women started talking, Fenton said, one admitted to taking the snails while the other said she didn’t understand her Miranda Rights.

In the end, Fenton said both women were cited. Before they were released, both of them denied knowing it was wrong to take sea life from tide pools.

“They claimed the didn’t know it was illegal,” he said. “They were 10 feet away from the [warning] signs that says they can’t take anything.”

The man with them maintained he wasn’t involved at all.

“He claimed he didn’t do anything and was listening to music in the car,” Fenton said.

The Pacific Grove Marine Gardens State Conservation Area — where the women were cited — is one of four small protected areas on the Peninsula. In that area, fish and game only allows taking fin fish with a hook and line for recreational uses.

“There are so many different violations for taking marine life,” Fenton explained. “Each part of the sanctuary has a different name and different fish and game code that protects it.”

After he was done citing the women, Fenton said he returned the snails to nearby tide pools. “I don’t know how many survived and how many didn’t,” he said.

The snails were turban snails (tegula funebralis), which resemble the headwear of their name and are found on the Pacific Coast from British Columbia to Baja. Hermit crabs often occupy the shells of dead turban snails, which can live up to 25 years.

Spitz said the penalty for fish and game violations range from six to 12 months in county jail, but defendants usually end up paying a large fine and avoid time behind bars.