..California Abalone diving prohibited next year…

……Population on the brink of collapse….

The decision came at a meeting of California Fish and Game Commission Thursday in San Diego, following a warning from scientists at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that the population is in severe decline. The commission voted unanimously to close the fishery for one year, in 2018. The season would normally open in April.

“There are multiple indications that this fishery is collapsing,” said Cynthia Catton, an environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There’s no sign that it’s even hit the bottom yet. We’re seeing continuing active mortality, we’re seeing continued starvation conditions.”

The decision to close or keep the abalone fishery open has created tensions between state biologists on one side, and members of the diving community and the Nature Conservancy on the other. The two sides disagree on the best way to maintain the sea snail’s dwindling population in light of severe environmental conditions, as well as on the best scientific methods to tract their population.

Kelp forest devastation over the past few years have led to starvation, mortality and low reproduction rates in red abalone, and an exploding population of purple sea urchin, which compete with abalone for food, has only made it worse. For the same reasons, the 2017 season for sport abalone fishing was reduced by two months and the annual limit was reduced from 18 to 12 per person.

However, because abalone take many years to reach reproductive age, “The consequences could last generations,” said Catton.

The abalone fishery south of San Francisco has been closed since 1997 for similar reasons, and the population has not yet recovered enough to reopen. That’s in contrast to the fishery’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, when California commercial fishermen brought in around 2,000 metric tons of different species of abalone annually. Commercial fishing was banned in the state in 1997.

In a letter it submitted last month to the Fish and Game Commission, the Nature Conservancy argued to keep the fishery open, offering an alternative way to monitor and manage the population, which it called “a conservative approach to resource management under the recent extreme environmental conditions, thereby ensuring full stock recovery, while still maintaining access to the resource.”

Yet avid divers like Jack Likins of Gualala (Mendocino County) argue that the abalone would actually be better protected if the legal fishing remains open in a limited capacity, because poaching would continue. They also worry it would never reopen once closed.

According to a management plan created 20 years ago, the state must close the fishery when the density of abalones in certain areas drops below a certain level. (The state is in the process of updating that plan.) Catton and a team of fellow scientists based at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay, along with volunteer divers, conduct the surveys each fall.

“It’s hard to describe the emotion that I felt doing the surveys this year. It was just heartbreaking,” she said. “Areas that I remember being lush with kelp, that I remember having to fight the kelp, now it’s bare rock. It’s just bare rock, with countless abalone shells littering the floor.”

In August and September, the divers surveyed the 10 most popular diving sites in Mendocino and Sonoma and found abalone at an average of .15 animals per square meter, which they consider half the bare minimum, which triggers a closure of the fishery. The density has dropped 65 percent since they conducted a survey last year, Catton said.

Also, Catton observed that the live animals had lost muscle mass, meaning they can’t reliably clamp onto rocks which makes them vulnerable to predators, including sea urchins and seagulls.

“It’s one of their primary defenses against predation — human predation or otherwise,” she said of a healthy abalone’s foot muscle. “It holds them in place and keeps them from getting washed up on shore with the waves.”

When abalones are starving, their reproductive organs also shrink. The other thing Catton found alarming was that abalone had moved mostly to shallow areas no more than 15 feet deep, she said. Normally a lot of them congregate in the deeper areas that most divers can’t access, which forms a natural protected nursery to keep the population going.

Yet Likins, who dives about 30 times a season, mostly to do volunteer surveys for the nonprofit organizations Reef Check and the Nature Conservancy, said things often look different to him than what the surveys represent. He also said that surveys have been proven to be problematic, based on a peer review of the department’s methods as well as analysis done by the Nature Conservancy.

“The main drawbacks of it basically are that it’s statistically unreliable,” said Likins. “There is so much variation from year to year.” He also said though the surveys are done at popular diving spots, they don’t account for vast areas of the coast where abalone inhabit.

Tara Duggan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: tduggan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @taraduggan




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……just another aggravated aggregator……………..





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