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In a blow to abalone hunters and a host of North Coast businesses that rely upon their patronage, the state Fish and Game Commission voted Thursday to suspend the harvest of red abalone in 2018, shutting down the last viable abalone fishery in California for at least a year.

The 4-0 decision came during a public meeting in San Diego that was emotional at times and sobering throughout, given evidence of mass starvation and mortality among red abalone along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts over the past several years.

Commissioner Anthony Williams of Huntington Beach made the motion to suspend abalone hunting next year, a shutdown that will be revisited at the end of 2018 to decide whether the fishery would be viable for sport hunters the following year.

“I want to err on the side of protection,” Williams said.

The unprecedented closure was recommended by state Fish and Wildlife officials under an established management plan, and state abalone experts said it was warranted for a population in peril.

But the decision was met with some frustration and anger among divers who said it went too far.

“I’m basically sick to my stomach right now,” said Monte Rio resident Matt Mattison, an avid diver, guide and fisherman who leads an online site devoted to ocean fishing. “It’s devastating.”

Other abalone hunters said they supported the move, if grudgingly.

Arcata diver Brandi Easter, 25, who traveled to San Diego for the meeting, told commissioners their own guidelines, “ideal or not,” gave them no choice but to close the fishery.

She described “extremely heartbreaking” scenes of starved abalone and empty shells at a favorite dive site. “The abalone fishery needs our stewardship, not our selfishness,” she said.

Many hunters had held out hope the commission would allow some minimum abalone harvest in order to support longtime traditions, the coastal economy and the adrenaline- fueled rush that accompanies the sport. Many said even reduced season catch limits of three or six abalone would at least provide a chance to dive.

“Anything that’s not a closure is a win for us today,” Josh Russo, president of the Sonoma County Abalone Network and of the statewide Watermen’s Alliance, told the commission.

Commissioners closely considered allowing restricted harvests and even discussed changing the legal catch size from 7 inches to 8 inches to help reduce impact.

But they ultimately determined the risks of allowing a harvest of the prized mollusks threatened to push the declining stock beyond the point of recovery.

Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the lead official on abalone matters, came to near tears and had to pause as he told commissioners he wished the news were different, given his own long enjoyment of the sport.

“I think Brandi put it best,” he said haltingly of Easter’s comments. “If we’re truly conservationists, you know, let’s step up and become conservationists.”

A key factor seemed to be a turn in commissioners’ understanding of how a closure might affect poachers, who are believed to take at least as many abalone out of the water each year as are legally harvested.

After hearing repeatedly from divers and from Fish and Wildlife staff that having law-abiding hunters on the water helped curb poaching, commissioners heard from David Bess, the agency’s law enforcement chief. He said that while some poachers operate “under cover” of legal fishing, shutting down the fishery would be a more effective approach to reining in the illegal harvest.

“In my opinion, poaching is reduced overall with a closure,” Bess said. “And then what we’re dealing with is the most egregious of the poachers who don’t care if it (the fishery) is open or not.”

California once boasted healthy commercial and sport fisheries for white, green, and black abalone, all of which have been depleted. Until this year, only red abalone, and only those found north of the Golden Gate, have been legal to harvest, in limited quantities, and only for recreational purposes.

About 25,000 people a year obtain the permits to fish them, with 96 percent of the abalone collected off the coasts of Sonoma and Mendocino counties during a typical seven-month season.

A Department of Fish and Wildlife paper released last year determined that abalone fishing brought more than $28 million to the two counties, between food, lodging, gas, gear and other amenities.

Blake Tallman, owner of the Sub-surface Progression Dive Shop in Fort Bragg, founded by his father 40 years ago, said his whole business depended on abalone. He said he expects other coastal business owners will be in shock when they feel the effects of the closed season.

The commission has been reducing opportunities for hunting red abalone over several years because of environmental factors that have decimated the North Coast’s kelp forest and set off a series of ecological shifts that have killed off a large percentage of the region’s abalone and reduced their reproduction.

Two months were lopped off the seven-month season this year and bag limits were reduced from already restricted levels. The densities of the shellfish have continued to decline, falling well below the level that would trigger a closure under the Abalone Recovery Management Plan approved by the commission in 2005, Mastrup said.

Given the state of their food supply and overall health, the numbers are not done falling, he said.

“We are off the scale on this thing,” Mastrup said, “and when we have seen these densities in this state and in other countries, we have seen a collapse.

“And frankly, we don’t know if we’re already there.”

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

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