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