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Are limitations on abalone harvest making an impact?

Trevor Martini tries to explain to State Park Ranger Rob Walton why an abalone, that he was caught throwing out of his car as he neared the checkpoint, was under the 7-inch requirement. Martini was given a ticket for the violation. The checkpoint was located on Hwy 1 on Sunday, May 18, 2014 north of Jenner, California. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

MARY CALLAHAN,

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

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.

A young Napa man ticketed for having taken too small a mollusk from the ocean - one he chucked from his window in a panic on his way into the checkpoint Sunday, only to have it land with a telltale thunk in the bed of a warden's truck - would have faced the same consequences a year ago, for instance.

Several others were cited for common violations in any year: failing to tag their abs or fill out the report cards that allow officials to track exactly how many they've harvested and from whence they've come.

And still others had smudgy looking paperwork that suggested to wardens they had altered the dates, perhaps exceeding the daily limit of three.

Some divers think the Fort Ross closure is flooding areas with typically thin crowds with more people, however.

"They're squeezing everyone into places not dove much before," said Steve Mueller, 57, of San Rafael. "Now you're going to really knock the living daylights out of that."

Some suggested fishermen diverted from Sonoma County by the sharply reduced limit might be doing all their fishing in Mendocino County.

But despite a Sunday checkpoint in Mendocino County's Boonville area, through which 530 vehicles were screened, the overall numbers this season appear to be lower there, McKiver said.

"Very few people, actually, who are conscientious divers," he said, "get more than like 12 abalone a year anyway."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.