Resource Report - Abalone Continue the Struggle

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Posted by Stephen Benavides on May 18, 2011 at 17:27:00:

On May 8, 2011, the Recreational Abalone Advisory Committee (“R AAC") met to review its annual recommendations to the Director of Fish and Game for disposition of the funds provided by the abalone stamp and report cards. For the last full year which is 2010, 34,211 people purchased abalone cards providing $650,000 in additional funding for abalone specific invertebrate management and wildlife protection efforts. This is the smallest number of abalone card sales since the first full year of the program in 1998. Sales have averaged 37000 over the last several years.

In an attempt to counteract increasing evidence of poaching California recently implemented its Automatic License Data System (ALDS) which now provides a central database for issuing and managing fishing and hunting licenses. The ALDS should help prevent the purchasing of multiple abalone cards by people trying to take more abalone than the annual limit. This has been one of the main enforcement problems for the north coast. Wardens have reported they are seeing numerous repeat offenders which indicates the black market value of abalone is very high, as much as $100 each. One individual was arrested on three occasions over a three-week period. Two of those arrests were felonies for sport-to-commercial poaching. Poachers are becoming increasingly sophisticated using lookouts, multiple car switches and high-tech radios. Some of the active poachers are making as much as $100,000 a year abusing the resource. Sport divers need to become more proactive in protecting their turf from thieves.

Rock pickers are reporting having trouble finding legal sized abalone and are frequently failing to properly attach undersized abalone. Failure of proper attachment is a problem because it has increased mortality of undersized abalone. There is a considerable increase of "dry sacking" where one or more skilled rock pickers enter the water and pass off multiple limits of abalone to those less skilled or those not even entering the water. It is incredibly important that the diving community understand the dangers to the resource and remain vigilant in protecting what remains by reporting poachers and over limits to the wardens and rangers.

Department scientists have testified to the Fish and Game Commission that the overall density of abalone at the Northern California index sites continues to fall across all sites and at all depths. The fact that deep water abalone appear to be less dense is especially troubling since the breath-hold-only restriction for sport caught abs in the northern part of the state is based on maintaining a "refuge-at-depth” as an insurance against over harvest. Unfortunately, if the average abalone density at the index sites falls below 0.50 abalone per square meter, the Fish and Game Commission will be required to trigger a 25% reduction in the total allowable take. We are not quite there, but close enough for concern.

The Marine Resource Committee of the Commission has expressed interest in proactively reducing the abalone catch and three proposed regulation changes are now being considered by the Commission. The first of these would be an early-morning closure which would shorten the fishing day by prohibiting the take of any abalone prior to 8:00 AM local time during the entire season. It is estimated that this regulation will reduce the catch up to 20%. Another alternative is to reduce the annual limit from 24 to 12 abalone. This is expected to reduce the annual catch by 25%. A third alternative would be to implement a complete early season closure for the Fort Ross area. This would provide an estimated 7% reduction in catch.

One of the problems which has been soundly documented by the abalone report cards is that the take of abalone from the Fort Ross area has risen sharply and is proceeding at a rate which is clearly not sustainable. Between 2003 and 2009 it is estimated that the average annual catch of Fort Ross has increased by 51%. As much as 17 to 21% of the total abalone catch in the north came from the Fort Ross area. Fort Ross currently has the lowest abalone density of the eight Northern California index sites and is closest to the site closure trigger of 0.33 abalone per square meter. More restrictive regulations may be needed at the Fort Ross site to ensure sustainability as abalone is extremely vulnerable to local depletion.

Recovery efforts in Southern California have finally begun. While White and Black abalone are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, Pink and Green and Pinto abalone remain species of concern. Abalone density is so low in Southern California that timed-swim research surveys are done instead of linear transect surveys. The highest densities appear to be located at San Miguel Island were surveyed densities are about .12 abalone per square meter which remains well below the trigger point for closing the resource. These numbers remain extremely low despite the fact there has been no commercial or recreational harvest of abalone at San Miguel Island for almost 13 Years. Aggregation experiments which create artificial densities of wild adult abalone translocated to study sites have begun at three Channel Island locations. The aggregated adult abalone are tagged with PIP tags and have had good survival. The study continues to investigate methods to recover the Southern California abalone resource. Additional and more detailed information is available on the Department of Fish and Game website. Look for the reports and the minutes of the Recreational Abalone Advisory Committee meetings in the Marine Resources section of the Fish and Game site www.dfg.ca.gov .

Stephen G. Benavides, Member
Recreational Abalone Advisory Committee

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