Unprecedented delay in California abalone season shuts down North Coast in April

The shortened season, which will begin May 1, has disrupted annual rituals and is likely to be a financial blow to businesses linked to the popular sport.|

2017 Recreational Abalone Season at a Glance

April and November now closed to the harvest of red abalone

Season open May 1 - June 30, Aug. 1 - Oct. 31

Fishing permitted 8 a.m. to half-hour after sunset daily

Season limit is 12 per calendar year, reduced from 18 last year

Only 9 abalone may be taken from waters south of Mendocino County

Daily limit is 3 abalone

Minimum size is 7 inches or more measured at the longest shell diameter

SOURCE: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

In a normal year, veteran diver Matt Mattison would likely have started this weekend clad in neoprene, plying the waves off the Sonoma Coast, eager to bag his first red abalone of the season.

Instead, the Monte Rio resident was among a group of volunteers who fanned out Saturday along the North Coast's most popular abalone hunting grounds to head off any divers or rock pickers who mistakenly turned up and to inform them the traditional season start has been delayed.

A jubilant occasion that typically draws hundreds, perhaps thousands, of restless abalone hunters to coastal waters each year, the April 1 opener is a little like Christmas for those who pursue the succulent sea snails. It's a rite of spring.

But after four decades of time-honored ritual - cause for reunions of family and friends on the Sonoma and Mendocino coast every year - the California Fish and Game Commission has taken emergency action curtailing this year's season, axing both April and November from the calendar and sharply reducing the allowable annual catch, from 18 abalones to 12.

It will be the first April since 1921 - a time when the season began in mid-March - that red abalone cannot legally be harvested, according to Jerry Kashiwada, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The tighter limits will likely deliver a blow to coastal businesses, particularly those that cater directly to abalone fishers and their companions - places such as campgrounds, dive and tackle shops, motels and service stations.

“It takes our April away,” said Lisa McCulloch, assistant manager at Albion River Campground, south of Mendocino, which has 106 campsites in need of campers each day.

“April 1 of 2016, I was full for April 1 of 2017,” McCulloch said. But once the Fish and Game Commission's emergency action was announced in December, “everybody changed their dates.”

April, said Blake Tallman, owner of Sub-surface Progression Dive Shop in Fort Bragg, “is usually when we're kind of crawling out of the winter and the town gets more busy. I don't think it's going to be like that this year.”

Wildlife managers hope lessening pressure on the imperiled mollusks will help the fishery rebound from a catastrophic mix of ocean conditions that have prompted extensive starvation in abalone stocks.

The suite of emergency measures is projected to shave about a quarter of this year's harvest, offsetting reductions in population and reproduction caused by high mortality and physical attrition.

It's still unclear how big a hit local businesses will take because of losing April, which accounted for about 12 percent of the 2015 abalone harvest, or whether the losses might be offset by extra visitors come May and June.

Still, the reduced seasonal catch limit likely means many divers, who are allowed to harvest a maximum three shellfish a day, will take two or three fewer trips to the coast this year, and thus spend less on gas, groceries, meals and lodging, several said.

Tallman said he thinks it likely the injury to businesses may be more dramatic than the benefit to abalone stocks.

“It's a really hard pill to swallow,” said Cotati diver Owen Mitchell, who is typically among those headed coastside in early April to look for abs. “On the one hand, you can see what's going on under the water, with the (abalone) population. But there's also going to be the human impact of shortening the season.”

Instituting changes

Though the waters off the California coast once supported five popular sport and commercial abalone fisheries, most of them were closed down during the latter half of the last century due largely to overfishing and severe depletion of the species.

Only the red abalone recreational fishery remains open, and then, only north of San Francisco under tight regulations designed to adapt to shifting ocean conditions and to maintain a thriving fishery.

Managers have made numerous changes in the past six years in response to ecological setbacks that include a toxic algal bloom or “red tide” off the Sonoma Coast that decimated thousands of red abalone in 2011 and resulted in the indefinite closure of popular abalone hunting grounds off Fort Ross State Park.

Subsequent changes in the fishery rules, most adopted in 2013, included a reduction in the annual limit from 24 to 18 abalone, only nine of which could be taken from waters south of Mendocino County. The current season total of 12 is half of the pre-2013 catch limit.

The early morning hours also have been closed to fishing over the past four years under a new, daily start time of 8 a.m. that precludes the harvest of red abalone during several very low spring tides, or “minus tides,” affecting largely rock pickers. A withdrawing tide can reveal a bounty of accessible abalone to anyone wading along the shoreline, and losing the early morning hours cuts into those opportunities.

But the April 1 start date, first adopted in 1976, has stood firm for 40 years, allowing generations of sport enthusiasts to establish opening-weekend traditions, some renowned for a certain level of irrational exuberance and risk. That's obvious when ocean conditions are really too rough for fishing, but some people, particularly those who may have driven several hours to reach the coast, brave the water anyway.

Those circumstances and the rescues and fatalities they have produced gave rise to short-hand descriptors among ab aficionados - “Sacramento syndrome” and “April fools,” for those who ignore warnings about perilous surf.

Rescue personnel know to be braced for the abalone season start. And some fear abalone hunters will take even more chances, now that the season is shorter.

“On the North Coast, we're constantly hit with rough weather, so the opportunity to get into the water is usually regulated by Mother Nature,” said state Fish and Wildlife warden Joel Hendricks, supervising lieutenant for the Mendocino Coast. “With the shortened season, our chances of getting out on a nice calm weekend are cut short.”

Diving ‘is my life'

More than 25,000 people participate in the season each year.

Among them, Mattison, 40, is well known. A dive instructor, guide and founder of the Nor Cal Underwater Hunters online forum, he said he has “been going every year opening day, if the conditions were divable, for the last 30 years.”

He said the huge swells forecast this weekend would have kept him home even if the season had opened as usual. But other rites of passage haven't kept him out of the water.

He said years ago, he coaxed his pregnant wife into letting him go diving even though their baby already was a day overdue.

Mattison was out in Ocean Cove, north of Fort Ross, when the Sonoma County sheriff's helicopter, Henry 1, stopped overhead and a voice announced, “Matt Mattison! You need to get to shore!”

He made it to Kaiser Hospital in Santa Rosa in time to see his boy join the world, but at the cost of some serious grumbling from family, not to mention the stink eye from the Kaiser staff.

“People laugh at it now,” Mattison said. “During the time, they all weren't every happy with me.”

But diving, he said, “is my life.” He added, “Even my son understood and waited for me.”

Chaos for commercial outfits

Northern California's fisheries, though already troubled, have been thrown into chaos during the past few years from fallout linked to the state's historic drought and a period of unusually high ocean temperatures on the West Coast.

The lucrative commercial Dungeness crab season has been delayed each of the past two years, while declining king salmon runs threaten both commercial and sport seasons this year, though dates won't be adopted until later this month.

The recreational salmon season did open Saturday as usual, but whether it will stay open for long is in doubt. Under the strictest alternative being considered by fishery managers, it could close down altogether after April.

The decision to cut the abalone season short and delay the opening until May 1 was not entirely out of the blue, given months of concern about the state of the North Coast's iconic kelp forest, which supports a vast food web.

Scientists say the 2011 red tide was just the first in a string of large-scale ecological disruptions that have dramatically diminished the bull kelp that traditionally grows along the Sonoma and Mendocino coast. In 2013, the arrival of sea star wasting disease killed off several species that were key predators of sea urchins, allowing for an explosion among voracious purple urchins recently measured at more than 60 times their historic densities.

The tiny urchins have consumed vast quantities of kelp that struggle in warm water conditions, eliminating a key source of nutrition for abalone. In some spots last year, nearly the entire underwater forest had disappeared.

Avid divers adapting

What those conditions have meant for the abalone fishery is up for debate among hunters.

Regular divers vary in their assessment of the species' health, population status and general ocean conditions.

Many, including Mattison, are critical of the state's use of the eight most popular dive spots for official counts and contend the Fish and Wildlife Department's mandate to preserve a “Cadillac fishery” is unreasonable and unrealistic.

Still, most avid divers have learned to adapt to restrictions on abalone, many by taking up spearfishing for rock fish, an increasingly popular sport that fills time which otherwise would be spent hunting for abs.

“When you're hunting something that can run away, it's much more of a challenge,” said Mitchell, 37, the Cotati diver.

Others just look for larger, more spectacular sea snails.

“You would still come home with the same amount of take,” said Tom Stone, owner of Sonoma Coast Divers in Rohnert Park. “It just would be in two abalone, instead of three. You would just look a little bit longer for it.”

Spreading the word

State officials and fishery advocates, many of whom participated in last winter's debate on emergency actions, say they think word about the April closure has been widely disseminated. But there have been reports from various sources of abalone hunters inquiring about gearing up, enough to spread worry that too many may be unaware the fishery remains closed.

Among the challenges in spreading the word: A contract dispute has delayed printing of the state's annual ocean fishing guide that is usually distributed at the time abalone hunters purchase fishing licenses and abalone report cards.

Josh Russo, president of the Waterman's Alliance and a representative to the state's Recreational Abalone Advisory Committee, joined with Kashiwada and others to mobilize a dozen or more volunteers who patrolled the coast during a negative tide Saturday morning to make sure anyone who came out to hunt knew they couldn't legally do so.

“We dread changing regulations, because it often takes a year or two for people to catch up with the change,” said Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager for Fish and Game's Marine Region invertebrate program.

The agency already is doing advance work on next season, however, intent on avoiding the shortened emergency process used last winter.

But Mastrup said evidence so far suggests minimal recovery of the kelp forest, continued withering among abalone and poor conditions for reproduction.

“We don't have any information that would suggest any different approach (to the 2018 season) is warranted at this point,” Mastrup said. “We're keeping our fingers crossed that the kelp comes back, but a lot of what we saw in terms of impact to abalone, it's going to take years to recover from.

“It won't be an overnight ‘Well, everything's good now, good to go,'?” Mastrup said. “It's going to take awhile.”

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

2017 Recreational Abalone Season at a Glance

April and November now closed to the harvest of red abalone

Season open May 1 - June 30, Aug. 1 - Oct. 31

Fishing permitted 8 a.m. to half-hour after sunset daily

Season limit is 12 per calendar year, reduced from 18 last year

Only 9 abalone may be taken from waters south of Mendocino County

Daily limit is 3 abalone

Minimum size is 7 inches or more measured at the longest shell diameter

SOURCE: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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