More limits foreseen for California abalone fishery as scientist raises alarm

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A marine wildlife expert put California fish and game commissioners on notice Thursday that significant new restrictions in the abalone fishery — including more closures — may be necessary next year because of continued starvation and die-off among the sought-after mollusks.

Even a shutdown of the iconic North Coast sport fishery should be on the table, though only as a worst-case scenario, said Sonke Mastrup, invertebrate program manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“What we’re seeing is going to have long-term implications,” Mastrup said in an interview. “This is not a temporary problem, and what that turns into, we don’t know yet, and it’s appropriate to start having the conversation so people aren’t shocked down the road.”

No decisions regarding the 2018 season need to be made until later this year, after the results of annual underwater surveys conducted in August and September are available, Mastrup told the California Fish and Game Commission at its regular, bi-monthly meeting, held in Smith River.

But commissioners and the public need to be prepared for the possibility of drastic measures, given declining health and reproductive capacity among red abalone on the North Coast, he told commissioners.

The prospect of additional limits on an already highly regulated fishery is likely to generate debate among divers and other abalone hunters, who are often at odds with regulators, given the variability of conditions in specific places where they dive.

Jack Likins, a veteran diver from Gualala, attended the commission meeting Thursday and repeated oft-cited concerns about the accuracy of surveys used by state wildlife officials to collect population data.

A fishery-wide closure would be going “a little overboard,” but he said it’s clear to everyone that the fishery is in trouble.

“All of us can see the damage that’s been done, the (poor) conditions,” he said.

The crisis comes in the wake of a massive deterioration in the spread and health of North Coast kelp forest over the past several years, a consequence of what scientists call “a perfect storm” of large-scale stressors that include two years of unprecedented and prolonged warm ocean conditions.

In addition, the rampant spread of sea star wasting disease, beginning in 2013, wiped out an important population of urchin predators, leading to an explosion of small purple urchins that have grazed vast swaths of kelp forest down to almost nothing, depriving abalone of their primary food source.

About 95 percent of the red abalone harvested by recreational divers and rock pickers are taken off the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts each year, officials say.

Inspections of abalone harvested at popular dive spots both in December and this spring show at least a quarter of the sea snails have shrunken in their shells, Mastrup said. Other signs point to poor reproduction, including whithered reproductive organs, likely reducing long-term repopulation across different age groups.

“They’re basically shutting down from a reproductive point of view,” Mastrup said.

It takes 10 to 12 years for red abalone to reach legal harvest size, he said, so it may be some time before the toll on the overall population is observable.

The problems add to a building conclusion that the current model of fishery is not sustainable, Mastrup said.

It looks bad now, he told commissioners, but “I’m worried about a few years down the road, where there’s no replacement for those adults in the fishery. So we’re going to be paying for this for a while.”

The Fish and Game Commission, which regulates recreational fishing, has imposed stronger restrictions in recent years to curtail the allowable catch and hours in which divers and rock pickers can hunt for abalone.

In December, the commission took emergency action to slash the 2017 season by two months. It began May 1 this year and runs through October, with the usual break in July.

The commission also dropped the season catch from 18 to 12 abalone, only nine of which may be taken south of the Mendocino County line.

The emergency regulations, which expire after 180 days, will need to be renewed in August to remain in effect for the rest of the 2017 season, Mastrup said.

Views among divers on potential solutions are mixed, said Josh Russo, the North Coast representative to the state Recreational Abalone Advisory Committee and president of both the Waterman’s Alliance and the Sonoma County Abalone Network.

He voiced hope about developing “diver-friendly ways” of reducing pressure on abalone stocks “without closing the fishery.

“That’s not what anybody wants,” he said.

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

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