Abalone divers are in for a shock this year, likely more uncomfortable than the first surge of cold ocean water inside a wetsuit.
In the wake of an unprecedented abalone die-off in 2011, new regulations for the 2014 season have curbed the annual catch limit and closed the North Coast's most popular abalone dive site at Fort Ross State Park.
Also new is a later daily starting time for the sport fishing season that draws thousands of people who pry about 260,000 of the tasty sea snails a year off rocks along the scenic coast.
Forty-five sites in Sonoma and Mendocino counties account for 96 percent of the catch, according to state records.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say the rules are based on dive surveys that found a 60 percent decline in Sonoma County abalone population density following the die-off in August 2011 that littered the shore with dead white abalone carcasses, detached from their shells.
“We want to ratchet back the whole fishery,” said Laura Rogers-Bennett, a Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist based at Bodega Marine Laboratory.
The season-long closure at Fort Ross and the nearby Reef Campground, by far the most popular site with an average catch of more than 41,000 abalone a year, is intended to “give it a rest,” Rogers-Bennett said.
Some abalone divers are chafing at the restrictions and challenging the rationale for them.
“We have a very healthy abalone population,” said Roger Rude of Windsor, a veteran abalone diver who is making a documentary movie on the sport.
Rude, who said he has seen “abalone stacked upon abalone” in places, contends that state officials are “overstating” the damage from the 2011 die-off.
A retired Sonoma County sheriff's lieutenant, Rude was especially critical of the new annual catch limit of 18 abalone and the provision that only nine can be taken from Sonoma and Marin counties.