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New limits posed for California’s abalone fishery amid poor ocean conditions

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How to participate

State Fish and Wildlife representatives will attend a town hall meeting Saturday in Fort Bragg. Sponsored by the Watermen’s Alliance, the meeting runs from noon to 4 p.m. at the C.V. Starr Community Center, 300 South Lincoln St.

The state Fish and Game commission is meeting over two days next week in San Diego and will take up the emergency abalone proposal on Wednesday. The meeting will be live-streamed at cal-span.org.

More information is available at fgc.ca.gov.

Concern about abnormal ocean conditions off the North Coast is prompting a move by state wildlife officials to restrict next year’s abalone fishery, perhaps halving the number of sea snails individual hunters would be permitted to harvest and even lopping a month or two off the traditional seven-month season.

The dramatic cutback proposed for the popular recreational fishery comes as red abalone stocks are showing the severe effects of wide-scale habitat disruption, including the die-off of kelp forests, leading to starvation for abalone and other sea life.

While the survival of the species is not currently in question, the sustainability of the fishery is “threatened,” said Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager for California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s marine region.

“We should try to be a little conservative until we know what is going to transpire, because if you overdo it, it’s hard to take back,” Mastrup said. “Once you’ve killed too many, you’ve killed too many.”

The state Fish and Game Commission is set to decide Wednesday in San Diego on the abalone harvest limits, including several proposals meant to protect stocks that draw divers and pickers by the thousands to the wave-battered Sonoma and Mendocino coasts from April to November each year.

Longtime abalone hunters appear largely resigned to some kind of restrictions for next year, though they’re lobbying for what they believe is improved science to bolster future decisions on the fishery.

Wildlife officials say the declining abalone densities and poor conditions mandate action under a statewide management plan.

The emergency effort comes amid shocking reports of underwater landscapes barren of the lush kelp forests for which the region has long been known and overrun with small, voracious purple urchins that have stripped the ocean floor in some areas of virtually all available food.

The result is starvation among both abalone and urchins, though the latter can endure for years with little food, scientists said.

More than a quarter of the 6,000 harvested mollusks assessed at key sites during this past season were shrunken inside their shells and likely fated to die. Abalone shells that litter the coastline also attest to widespread weakness that leaves them unable to hold onto the ocean floor in rough conditions, experts say.

Urchins, meanwhile, have been observed under water “rasping away at the encrusting coral and algae on the rocks” and appear to be grazing on available abalone in some cases, said Ian Taniguchi, senior environmental scientist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Marine Region.

“In all my years — and I’ve been diving abalone since the ’70s — I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mastrup, a longtime participant in the agency’s annual abalone surveys off the North Coast.

“It’s not to say we haven’t seen spots like this,” Mastrup said. “What was new was the extent of this. You could see it up and down the coast... It was the scale of it that was stunning.”

Before next week’s commission meeting in San Diego, Mastrup will attend a town hall meeting in Fort Bragg on Saturday to discuss the emergency proposals.

Currently, the abalone fishery opens April 1 and runs through June 30, then closes for the month of July. It reopens Aug. 1 and runs through Nov. 30.

How to participate

State Fish and Wildlife representatives will attend a town hall meeting Saturday in Fort Bragg. Sponsored by the Watermen’s Alliance, the meeting runs from noon to 4 p.m. at the C.V. Starr Community Center, 300 South Lincoln St.

The state Fish and Game commission is meeting over two days next week in San Diego and will take up the emergency abalone proposal on Wednesday. The meeting will be live-streamed at cal-span.org.

More information is available at fgc.ca.gov.

Participants are now allowed to harvest 18 abalones total, only nine of which can be fished south of the Mendocino County line. The sport fishery is open only from waters north of San Francisco, and Sonoma and Mendocino counties account for all but 2 percent of the state’s annual abalone harvest, including an estimated 2015 catch of 155,000.

Proposals up for consideration next week include reducing the annual per-person limit to nine abalone, and closing the fishery in April or in both April and November.

At the suggestion of the Watermen’s Alliance, a statewide, grass-roots ocean fishing group, the commission also will consider cutting the annual limit to 12, with the closure of the fishery in April and November. The goal is to reduce the total harvest to about 107,000, officials said

Any emergency rule adopted would be in effect for 180 days, with the potential to be extended twice, for 90 days each, so it could remain in effect for the entirety of next season, officials said.

Guerneville resident Patrick Reesink, 60, was among those out on the coast Wednesday for the last day of the 2016 abalone season, continuing a cherished tradition and pastime with a friend.

“I’ve been diving for 40 years,” Reesink said. “It keeps getting more strict, and all the rules and regulations, but if it helps to keep the abalone alive, I’m all for it.”

State Fish and Wildlife officials first went public last winter with concerns about the decline of the North Coast’s kelp forest and expanding urchin barren, citing what the agency called a “perfect storm” of contributing ecological factors. It started with a harmful algae bloom off the Sonoma Coast in 2011 that took a toll on abalone populations.

In 2013, the arrival of starfish wasting disease killed off a key urchin predator, resulting in an explosion of purple urchins estimated at 60 times historic densities.

Then came the so-called “Warm Blob,” an expansive area of persistently higher-temperature ocean waters that appeared off the Alaskan coast in 2013 and spread down the West Coast a year later, enduring through the whole of 2015.

The bull kelp prominent in Northern California’s kelp forests suffered as a result, at the same time that urchins were scouring the ocean floor for food, devouring what kelp there was and out-competing abalone.

Aerial surveys conducted in 2014 suggested a 93 percent loss of kelp compared with 2008.

Though some observations suggest recent, if limited, kelp recovery, a renewed and strengthening warm blob to the north continues to concern scientists.

Additional limits for the tightly regulated abalone fishery aren’t especially welcome among loyalists of the hardy sport, taking in more than 25,000 divers and rock-pickers, many of whom gather annually on the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts. Many view state wildlife management with mistrust, poking at surveys they say underestimate the abalone population.

Some longtime divers say plenty of healthy abalone remain to be fished and wonder if Fish and Wildlife officials are overreacting to changing ocean conditions.

Gualala diver Jack Likins, who is part of a group collaborating with the Nature Conservancy to develop a new abalone management plan, said too much room exists for error in the surveys and assumptions that govern decision-making about the fishery.

“The actuality of it all is these things, back in history, are typically cyclical,” said Likins, 71. “The question is how long is the cycle? Is the cycle really going to be long enough that you should cut the fishery in half? Or is it going to recover next year?”

But many divers are also willing to support the temporary measures, so long as good science goes into the final management plan.

“We understand there is something going on,” said Josh Russo, president of the Watermen’s Alliance. “We just don’t know what it is or how bad it is, so we’re willing to give up something for the time being.”

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

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