JENNER — Word on the street is that new restrictions designed to curtail the abalone harvest off the Sonoma Coast this year have dampened enthusiasm for the sport enough to keep some would-be divers at home.
But that was difficult to believe amid the mobs of abalone divers who funneled through a California Fish and Wildlife checkpoint off Highway 1 north of Jenner on Sunday.
Nearly 670 people in 262 vehicles submitted to inspections to ensure they thoroughly complied with catch limits, documentation and minimum size regulations, state Fish and Wildlife officials said.
As always, there were violations. Thirty-one citations were issued in Sonoma County, Capt. Steve Riske said.
But seven weeks into the 2014 season, it's still too early to say what kind of effect the new regulations are having on compliance rates, he and other agency officials said.
There are anecdotal signs that more people may be waiting to tag the shellfish they catch, perhaps hoping they can get away without counting them toward their seasonal limit, cut from 24 last year to 18 total, some wardens have said.
But Riske said he could not make an assessment in the absence of statistical evidence.
People trying to circumvent the law, he added, are "going to be there doing that, regardless of how the laws change, unfortunately."
It does appear the rules may be having the desired effect, however: Fewer people flocking to the Sonoma Coast suggests there's less pressure on the fishery, as intended, they say.
In the past, 500 cars might have gone through the checkpoint, Riske said.
"I'm seeing much less activity," said Sonoma Coast Fish and Wildlife Warden Tiffany Stinson.
The 2014 regulations were issued last year after surveys showed that a massive die-off of red abalone in 2011 had taken a toll.
Because of the nature of their reproduction, abalone need to be populated in sufficient concentration to breed if the fishery is to be sustained, Stinson said. When the numbers don't meet the required threshold, the harvest has to be cut somehow.
The resulting rules, which took effect with the new season on April 1, included a reduction in the annual catch limit from 24 to 18 total, but only nine can come from the waters off the Sonoma and Marin coasts - a drastic change.
The state also closed the popular Fort Ross and Reef Campground areas to abalone fishing for the entire season, and pushed back the daily start time for the entire coast to 8 a.m. each day. It used be 30 minutes before sunrise.
The start time change has particular implications for "rock pickers" - those who, instead of diving, wade into the waters to hunt for the meaty mollusks in shallow waters. Robbed of the opportunity to hit the coast during especially low tides that often come during the early morning hours, pickers are likely to have less opportunity to bag their limits.
But the time change "is doing what it was intended to do, which is cut down on people coming during some of those minus tides," said Fish and Wildlife Lt. Dennis McKiver, who works in Mendocino County. "It's working."
Among those cited in Sonoma County on Sunday, it's not clear if the new regulations had an effect.
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