State wildlife commissioners voted Wednesday to cut two months off next year’s abalone season and reduce annual allowable catch for individuals from 18 to 12 shellfish in an effort to reduce impacts on the imperiled fishery.
The traditional April-to-November season, which includes a break in July, will run from May to October next year, in hopes of offsetting population losses stemming from an array of environmental causes, officials said.
The unanimous decision by the state Fish and Game Commission was made under emergency rule-making authority and is a temporary change for the coming season only. It will be in effect for 180 days but can be extended to cover the entire period of the traditional season.
The move comes amid signs of significant hardship for the iconic sea snails, which draw about 25,000 sport divers and shore pickers to the North Coast each year in pursuit of meaty prizes that for many feed annual traditions involving family and friends.
But recent changes in ocean habitat have led to starvation conditions for red abalone.
As vast swaths of the North Coast’s kelp forests have disappeared, voracious purple urchins have exploded in number, edging out abalone for food, state Fish and Wildlife scientists said.
Surveys of the ocean floor this summer and fall revealed an ongoing decline in population density, enough to trigger mandatory changes in the abalone fishery under a 2005 management plan, officials said.
A quarter of some 6,000 abalone caught last summer showed evidence of starvation, according to Sonke Mastrup, a Fish and Wildlife environmental program manager.
Scores of abalones have simply washed ashore, too weak to hold onto the rocky substrate during large swells.
The mollusks also aren’t reproducing well, with inspections indicating many abalones are not in breeding condition.
In fact, Mastrup said, “all indicators for this fishery are negative. There are no positive indicators. Previous reductions (in harvest opportunity) appear to have been ineffectual. They haven’t slowed the decline.”
Wildlife officials had initially suggested halving the annual catch limit to nine abalone but settled on a bag limit of 12, a count typically reached by only the most serious of fishermen every year.
Commissioners acknowledged that cutting April from the season disproportionately affects rock pickers, for whom very low spring tides present optimal abalone hunting opportunities.
Two years ago, shore pickers lost access to the very early mornings, when the lowest tides often occur. The daily start time was changed from 30 minutes before sunrise to 8 a.m.
Mastrup said the time change halved the number of abalone harvested by rock pickers, cutting it from about 30 percent of the overall season take to 15 percent. Josh Russo, a well-known diver with the statewide Watermen’s Alliance and a member of the Fish and Wildlife agency’s abalone advisory committee, was behind the compromise option for a 12-abalone limit but said there was no joy in seeing it approved.
The fallout will be felt for North Coast businesses who wanted to maintain a seven-month season, given fishery’s impact on the economy.
“The tough part is every man’s gain comes at the expense of another man,” Russo said. “I’m not jumping up and down, claiming victory.”