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California fish and game commissioners will decide Thursday if there is to be an abalone season next year in a much-anticipated vote with far-reaching ramifications for the popular but imperiled North Coast fishery and the economy it supports.

Under a plan that has framed red abalone hunting regulations since 2005, state fish and wildlife officials have urged the commission to suspend the 2018 season in hopes of preventing further depletion of the stock.

But the commission’s five appointed members are clearly interested in a compromise that would allow divers and rock-pickers some opportunity, however limited, to participate in a beloved tradition that draws thousands of people and their families to the Sonoma and Mendocino coast each year.

“It’s an iconic fishery,” said Napa County vintner Eric Sklar, president of the state Fish and Game Commission. “There’s so many people who find real joy in abalone fishing, and we hate to shut it down. That’s a given.”

The stakes are high and the future uncertain amid an unprecedented, three-year decline in the North Coast kelp forest, which provides critical food and habitat for the succulent mollusks hunted off the California coast for generations.

What agency scientists have called “a perfect storm” of environmental factors in play over the past six years has killed off large numbers of red abalone, starving many of those that remain and drastically reducing their reproductive fitness. One of those factors is the explosion of tiny, purple urchins that have decimated kelp and other abalone food supplies.

The population already has collapsed to density levels that are well below minimums that would close the fishery in the abalone management plan. Multi-year surveys by state Fish and Wildlife staff as well as independent scientists also show abalone populations moving out of deep waters into shallower areas in search of food, exposing themselves to fishing pressures if hunting continues.

Abalone require about 12 years to reach legal size, so every year of diminished reproduction has long-term impacts, said Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“On top of that, this stock is not done declining. It’s not finished collapsing,” said Mastrup, a veteran abalone diver and former executive director of the game commission. “We expect the number of adults, mature productive adults, to continue to decline for years.”

But the debate highlights many abalone hunters’ distrust of fishery regulators and disagreement with the scientific methods used to monitor abalone health, as well as with the recovery management plan, which was intended as a temporary place holder while a long-term plan is developed for the fishery.

Many say the existing plan is flawed in part because it is designed to maintain a higher abundance of abalone than is either natural or necessary. They also say that the recovery level that would be required for the fishery to reopen once closed is unattainable.

“It’s a fear-based statement that if they close it they’ll never reopen it,” said Fairfield resident Josh Russo, president of the Watermen’s Alliance and the Sonoma County Abalone Network, and a high-profile advocacy group for ocean divers. “But it’s based on some past experience.”

Abalone hunters have seen new restrictions on the fishery for the past several years, including 2014 reductions on their daily and annual bag limits, shorter diving days and closure of popular hunting grounds in the waters around Fort Ross, prompted by a then-unprecedented abalone die-off in 2011 due to a toxic algal bloom.

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Scientists now say the 2011 event was one in a series of large-scale environmental stressors that led to massive shifts in marine wildlife populations and instability for abalone stock. The circumstances included the 2013 arrival of sea star wasting disease, which killed off key predators of purple urchins, whose numbers subsequently boomed. At the same time, two years of warmer than usual ocean temperatures slowed the growth of bull kelp off the coast and voracious urchins ate through what did grow, outcompeting red abalone.

The abalone population has fallen ever since, prompting continued reductions that in 2017 included slashing two months off the usual seven-month season and allowing individuals to take only 12 shellfish during the season — only nine of which could be taken south of the Mendocino County line.

Surveys at 10 popular diving sites on the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts suggest density has declined by an average 65 percent this year compared with years past, according to Fish and Wildlife data. An estimated quarter of the red abalone found were starving. Between 22 percent and 67 percent of abalone in the water were found dead at various survey sites, Mastrup said.

Divers like Matt Mattison of Monte Rio say survey methods are flawed and discount the greater abundance of abalone found in coastal waters where access is more difficult and less fishing occurs. Waters put off limits to divers also harbor untouched populations, he argued.

“I dive regularly,” Mattison said. “Yes, there’s something going on in there, but it’s not the end of the world. There’s still lots of abalone out there.”

Mastrup, a former Fish and Wildlife deputy director, said commissioners have an obligation to comply with their approved abalone management plan and to their larger mandate to manage sport fisheries sustainably.

But in response to the commission’s August request to return with alternatives to a shutdown, he and his staff have suggested commissioners might consider four optional restrictions that include reduced bag limits, limited availability of fishing permit, or allowing hunters to take only abalone that are 8 inches long or larger, rather than 7 inches. The staff also has said that allowing fishing in the Fort Ross sector, although not yet recovered, would ease pressure on other areas.

California Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham has urged the commission to adhere to the management plan mandates and close the fishery despite what he acknowledged were “concerns associated with the density survey methodology and the socio-economic, cultural, and recreational impacts that could result from a fishery closure.”

“The prudent path is to close the fishery until the stock becomes stable and exhibits signs of meaningful recovery,” Bonham wrote in a Nov. 17 memo.

But Mattison said he anticipates the commission will allow very restricted abalone hunting, with an annual catch limit of around six and a daily limit of three.

“That’s what I’m expecting to play out Thursday,” he said, “and as a diver, I’m not happy with it. But on the other hand, I’m thrilled that there’s potentially going to be a season.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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