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How To Watch

The California Fish and Game Commission meets at 9 a.m. Wednesday in Oceanside. To watch live video of the meeting, go to www.fgc.ca.gov.

California fish and game commissioners on Wednesday extended the ban on recreational abalone fishing another two years to give the ailing species more time to recover from a near-total collapse on the North Coast.

The vote continued until April 2021 an existing closure approved a year ago in the wake of a sharp, multi-year decline in the popular fishery, with no signs of a rebound, a key state official said Tuesday.

“There’s no positive news,” said Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the lead expert on abalone matters. “We’re still seeing starving abalone this last season during the surveys. We’re still seeing fresh empty shells.”

The closure had been expected but is nonetheless a painful reminder of the uncertain future of a cherished tradition that brings friends and family together and is often passed down from one generation to the next. It could be years before abalone hunting on the level seen in recent decades along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts, the prime destination, is allowed again, Mastrup said.

“Frankly, the open access fishery that you’ve seen? We won’t see that fishery probably for a couple of decades,” Mastrup said.

The jeopardy is clear enough within the avid group of abalone hunters that closure fishing drew little opposition.

In fact, one leading voice for the divers said Tuesday he would have supported a longer suspension of the harvest.

“Nobody’s opposing the closure,” said Josh Russo, president of the Watermen’s Alliance, which represents diving organizations up and down the state. “I would have gone for five years.”

Commercial fishing for abalone has been banned since 1997. The recreational fishery for red abalone was the only one left when a wave of environmental stressors began exacting its toll about five years ago.

That included a disease that knocked out seastars, a key predator to purple urchins, which are voracious competitors with abalone. After their numbers exploded, the kelp forests on which both species depend were stripped clean across vast swaths of the coast.

The Warm Blob, a persistent band of unusually warm water along the West Coast, also did damage to abalone and its habitat. State surveys showed a population that was diminished and starving.

Now, some divers say they have seen revived kelp beds and abalone while spearfishing or exploring the water.

But those spots are isolated, Mastrup said. Efforts to curb urchin numbers have helped, with volunteers and commercial harvesters collecting 57 tons along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts. State commissioners gave another boost to those efforts Wednesday, increasing harvest limits on purple urchins.

But “there are still a lot of urchins,” Mastrup said. “They’re making a dent, but up to this point, we’re not sure it’s enough to make a bit difference.”

The resulting ban on abalone hunting leaves Sebastopol resident David Lose, an avid diver for 45 years, wondering if he’ll ever get to dive for abalone again.

“At 73 years old, and it’s closed for three years, what’s my chances? I used to be able to dive to 45, 50 feet,” Lose said. “I’m currently doing, you know, 10 to 15 feet. Without going back in the ocean and staying on top of my diving....”

How To Watch

The California Fish and Game Commission meets at 9 a.m. Wednesday in Oceanside. To watch live video of the meeting, go to www.fgc.ca.gov.

It’s also a hardship for coastal economies in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, where the bulk of the state’s 25,000 permitted abalone hunters fished each year.

Estimates based on surveys of abalone hunters put the worst-case economic hit at $26.7 million a year in direct, indirect and induced losses, according an economic statement prepared for the state Fish and Game Commission meeting in Oceanside.

The state also would lose more than $1 million in projected revenue from abalone card sales over the two-year period.

Tom Stone, owner of Sonoma Coast Divers in Rohnert Park, which offers equipment sales and rentals and diving classes, said it’s been a struggle to absorb the impact of the abalone closure, which accounted for more than a third of his business.

“Once the seastars come back and begin eating the urchins and kelp can take hold we can get our kelp forest back,” Stone said. “Then I’m hoping we can again have a healthy environment again. But I don’t think anyone knows.”

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

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