Scientists say decades are needed to rebuild California’s abalone collapsed fishery
It could take until at least 2032 before California reopens even the slightest season for abalone diving and hunting along the North Coast, where depleted stocks have shut the popular sport fishery since 2018.
But that’s a best-case scenario envisioned by scientists studying the beleaguered red abalone population.
It will likely be three to six decades before abalone hunters will enjoy an open fishery like they are accustomed to, given current environmental circumstances and reproductive projections, the scientific team has concluded.
That rough timeline, though subject to ongoing debate and changes based on ocean conditions and population shifts in the coming years, suggests a whole generation of people could miss out on a sport that has inspired adventure and deeply held tradition for legions of families and friends across Northern California.
It also could mean die-hard divers in upper age groups may have to make peace with having bagged their last abalone.
“Some of us won’t live long enough to get back in the water, so that’s not making a lot of people happy,” said longtime ab diver Sonke Mastrup, invertebrate program manager and chief representative in the process for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Jack Likins, a 74-year-old Gualala ab hunter known for bagging trophy-sized shellfish, summed up the gloom that has taken hold in the sport’s community. “I think fishermen like me are pretty discouraged,” he said.
The projections are part of a framework prepared for the state Fish and Game Commission to help guide management of the abalone fishery beginning next year, when an emergency three-year ban on the harvest of the mollusks expires.
Meeting on Tuesday
The commission’s Marine Resource Committee, meeting in Santa Rosa and San Diego, will discuss the document at a 9 a.m. session Tuesday and is likely to pass comments or recommendations on to the commission for consideration in April and beyond, Mastrup said. Special arrangements have been made for the public to participate via webinar or teleconference because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The draft report was developed by representatives from state Fish and Wildlife, the Ocean Protection Council, the Fish and Game Commission, The Nature Conservancy, stakeholders from the ab diving community, the Sherwood Valley Pomo tribe and members of the public. It addresses myriad subjects, including tools that might be used in the future to control how many abalone are harvested in any given year - size and catch limits, season limits and number of permits issued, for example.
But the primary focus was to define trigger points for shifting from a closed fishery to what’s called a “de minimis” fishery - one that allows a small amount of fishing by a limited number of participants but not enough to affect recovery of the stocks - and from closed to open fishery status, allowing as many people to participate as care to do so.
Modeling rebuild time
A group of scientists who worked specifically on computer modeling determined that the median rebuilding time from a closed fishery in 2021 to allowing the narrower fishery ranged from 11 to 31 years across different models. An additional 8 to 10 years would be needed if poor environmental conditions prolonged the abalone recovery period, the scientists found.
Under the limited fishery, participants would likely be chosen by lottery and allowed a very low catch limit. Those not selected one year would have advantage in the next year’s lottery.
The median recovery time before an open fishery could be scheduled was projected to be between 28 and 59 years.
Further refinement would depend on whether coastal waters were divided into two management zones - Marin/Sonoma coasts and Mendocino County coast to the north - or three - Marin/Sonoma coasts, Mendocino coast and Humboldt/Del Norte County coasts. The division is still up for debate.
“The reality is you can’t get past the biology of abalone,” Mastrup said. “It just takes them too long to grow up. That just creates this enormous lag.
“It’s not like deer hunting, for example. Deer in a year or two are old enough to be hunted. Abalone takes 12 years. It just slows everything down, and no matter what math you use, you can’t get past that.”
There might be opportunities for small numbers of fishermen to help harvest abalone needed periodically to test for size and reproductive fitness from various coastal sites. Such “biological fisheries” would allow abalone hunters to get a small taste of the sport while supplying needed data to fishery managers. Those assisting with the collection also would be able to take home the meat and shells.