by Bill Monson

A tourist town can expect some unusual behavior. You get people on holiday and they can really go bizarre.

Take the Great Gastropod Caper, which happened in our town late this summer.

It all began when a 911 caller told the Pismo Beach Police that a group of people was harvesting snails in gallon buckets down on the beach.

An officer was dispatched to check on the report. When he got to the site of the harvesting, he found four members of the Happy Times Church from Los Angeles (the name is real, straight from the police report). The Happy Timers admitted they'd been collecting but said they'd put the snails back in the ocean.

Sure enough, their gallon buckets were empty, but the officer was suspicious, so he called for backup and a search began. They soon found 200 pounds of black turban snails in an ice chest.

What followed was a discussion about lying to the police and a call to the California Department of Fish and Game.

F & G sent Warden Todd Tognazzini, who immediately had a problem. A person with a valid fishing license can legally take 35 turban snails; but these prevaricating parishioners did not have one. What's more, turban snails are tiny: 35 of them will fit in the palm of your hand. Obviously, 200 pounds of them was way over the limit.

But the fine is per snail!

Tognazzini would have to count the snails before he could cite the poachers.

I can almost hear you going, ''Ugh, did he have to count the slimy things by hand?''


What he did was dip a one and one-half-cup measuring scoop into the two-hundred pound pile. He then spread out the contents of the cup and counted. Since the snails were still alive -- and hence, moving -- it wasn't easy. He came up with between 80 and 100 snails per cup. He then scooped the pile from one place to another and came up with 176 scoops.

You do the math.

That's at least 14,000 snails!

The poachers claimed they were going to use them as part of a church barbecue that afternoon and knew nothing about limits or a license. Turban snails are supposedly a delicacy when boiled in the shell -- but this potential meal may turn out to be very expensive.

You see, the fine per snail above the limit can be two to three dollars, depending on the amount -- and since the poachers didn't have a license and lied about their possession of the snails, the fine could go even higher. We're talking over $40,000!

''There is a fine limit on misdemeanor crimes,'' Tognazzini says, ''but I have seen large fines for gross over-the-limits. Eight years ago, we had a case in the county where someone who took too many abalone was fined $14,000.''

Tognazzini says it's rare for anyone to take so much shellfish.

''It is not unusual to have 1,000 or 1,500, but this huge of a a quantity is very unusual.''

The story is quite the talk of Pismo. Most people I've spoken with would gladly have donated snails to the Happy Times barbecue. Our yards are full of them, but I suppose they're the wrong kind.

As of this writing, the case hasn't reached a court -- so I can't tell you how much the poachers were fined. But I promise to follow this case diligently and report on how the Great Gastropod Caper finally came out.

And in the meantime, the Happy Times poachers can review Leviticus 11:29-31 about eating snails.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website October 9, 2002

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