Seashore succulents tapped in global thieving scandal

03/20/2019

A vibrant, rosette-shaped succulent native to coastal Oregon and Northern California called bluff lettuce, or Dudleya farinosa, is the subject of an international thieving scandal, including from the beaches in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Adrian Foss, a captain in California Fish and Wildlife’s law enforcement division, and his special operations unit have spent the past two years collaborating with law enforcement to track down the smugglers—who he said have extracted thousands of plants from their native shores to a flourishing black market in Asia, primarily in China and South Korea. Though his division became aware of the issue in 2017, Mr. Foss said he believed it had been at least five years since heavy illegal exporting began. Last month, two poachers pleaded no contest to charges including felony grand theft and felony vandalism in Monterey County related to their removal of more than 1,800 plants from Garrapata State Park, north of Big Sur. It was the fourth Dudleya prosecution in California in a little more than a year. At Point Reyes, Mr. Foss’s division is leading an investigation that has not yet risen to the court. Seashore spokesman John Dell’Osso is aware of at least one case in which more than 1,000 plants were taken.  “We are on high alert,” the seashore’s wildlife ecologist, Dave Press, told the Light this week. “We have a heightened awareness of the issue, keeping where we know they grow in the seashore in mind as we are patrolling.” Dudleya farinosa can be multicolored or plain—with pale green leaves that are sometimes tipped in bright red—but either way makes an attractive house plant. It forms a rosette of wide, pointed, spade-shaped leaves, each about 6 centimeters long. The plant can also erect a tall stem with yellow flowers. Like many succulents, they provide an important source of nectar for hummingbirds and bees along the coast, according to the California Native Plant Society. Fish and Wildlife ecologist Michael van Hattem told the Press Democrat earlier this month that the plants occupy a narrow habitat niche on oceanside bluffs, below other shrubs above the high tide line. Their removal from the landscape contributes to erosion. “They are not rare by any means,” Mr. van Hattem told the Sonoma newspaper. “However, they are sensitive. They’re long-lived. They produce a fair amount of seed, but they can only really occupy these really microniches within this narrow habitat or ecotone on the North Coast. So they can’t handle the collection pressure.” Mr. Foss said his special operations unit—he has five employees but should have 10—has turned its attention almost exclusively to monitoring the dudleya, subtracting from their patrol of the taking of other species, such as abalone. It’s hard to keep employees, he said, because they are always on the road, and it’s “exhausting.” “Report what you see,” he encouraged beachgoers. Mr. Press, the seashore ecologist, added: “This is an iconic species. It’s a plant that speaks to people—they are the subject of coastal photographers—and one that we see in undisturbed areas usually. The loss of those plants impacts in an emotional way in addition to an ecological one.” The tip line for the California Fish and Wildlife special operations unit is (888) 334.2258.