Controversial proposed abalone fishery on San Miguel Island

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Posted by Stephen Benavides on November 29, 2012 at 21:30:45:

Do We Really Have To Kill Them to See If They Die?

The abalone fishery in California south of San Francisco was closed in 1997 because the remaining populations there were deemed to be in mortal danger from disease and overharvesting. The Legislature Ordered the Department of Fish and Game ("DFG") to prepare an Abalone Recovery and Management Plan ("ARMP") which was developed and finalized over the next decade. Under the ARMP, a series of measured density trigger points were set up representing: 1) healthy populations, 2) populations which indicated stress and required a reduction of take, and 3) densities at which the fishery should be closed. This particular limitation requiring closure is 2500 abalone per hectare (approximately 2 1/2 acres in area). Science has reported in numerous studies that once abalone density falls below 2000 animals per hectare there is a possibility of reproductive failure and the slow death of remaining populations. The scientific methodology behind these assumptions has been validated by peer review and the California Environmental Quality Act review.

In 2006 the California DFG and commercial abalone fisherman and several other collaborators conducted an extensive abalone survey in the shallow sub-tidal waters surrounding San Miguel Island. The results of that survey showed an average density of 1600 animals per hectare which is well below the fishery reduction and closure trigger points and below the 2000 animal per hectare density which many scientists believe allows reproductive failure and total failure of the fishery. This population has been protected and fishing prohibited since 1997 yet the population has not shown recovery which would allow a reopening of the fishery under the ARMP.

The California Abalone Association ("CAA") has requested the DFG and California Fish and Game Commission to allow the opening of an experimental fishery which contemplates the lethal collection of up to 12,000 adult red abalone (1000 dozen). The abalone harvesting would be collected from study areas and after this “experiment”, the remaining population would be assessed to see if the removal (death) of the breeding adults from the experimental fishery had a material impact on the remaining resource at San Miguel.

The CAA proposed to sell the abalone on the open market and pay themselves for the cost of harvesting. Any excess would compensate the state and outside consultants for the cost of evaluating the special fishery. At this time there is no provision which would allow recreational take at San Miguel Island and the CAA proposal contemplates a commercial sale of abalone taken from a remnant population of a recovering species.

All of the sport diver representatives of the Recreational Abalone Advisory Committee (“RAAC”) strongly object to the implementation of this fishery. The ARMP would prohibit reopening of the fishery with measured population densities as low as they currently are. Nonetheless, because abalone in California are now selling for $200 per animal on the black market and retail prices approach $100 a pound, there is a huge incentive to reopen a commercial fishery. The sport diving representatives of the RAAC believe, and the science indicates, that the proposal should be rejected outright. Nonetheless, a well-financed and determined group of commercial fishermen remain steadfastly committed to reopening the commercial harvest of abalone in California and have targeted the remnant population of San Miguel Island. We believe this proposal is the California abalone fishery equivalent to “scientific whaling”. Here are the reasons we believe The Fish and Game Commission and DFG should reject this proposed experimental fishery.

1. A fishery, based on red abalone, would utilize a remnant population of abalone. The previous fisheries north and south of San Miguel Island were closed because of depletion in commercial and recreational stock (southern California) because of sea otter expansion south to Point Conception. The remnant population of red abalone persists at San Miguel Island mostly because of island’s remote location.

2. If a fishery is opened the recreational divers should at least share in any commercial access. Resources are publicly "owned" and individuals (recreational users) should be allowed to participate, but when science and good management practice indicate a harvestable excess.

3. Recent surveys indicate that the populations of red abalone at San Miguel Island do not meet criteria specified in the ARMP necessary to re-open a fishery. Average populations remain at a density which would require closure under the ARMP.

4. The demands on Wildlife Protection personnel in monitoring an abalone fishery would require a likely excessive, intensive monitoring of a San Miguel Island fishery. There is no money or personnel available to fund or accomplish this.

5. The higher the remaining population at San Miguel Island, the more likely that surrounding islands will receive larvae input from San Miguel Island .

6. It has been documented that red abalone are more or less directly susceptible to Withering Syndrome depending upon the ambient sea water temperature; e.g.., the higher the water temperature the higher the WS disease rate. It might be suggested that when sea water temperature rises, it might be better to remove the "healthy" (apparently unaffected by WS) before individuals become affected by fishing thus achieving some fishery value. The biological reasoning contraindicates such an action. It is the healthy individuals that are needed to naturally provide reproductive products and thus allow natural selection to develop WS resistance. Cf: black abalone before the closure.

So on December 11 in San Diego the Marine Resource Committee of the California Department of Fish and Game is going to meet the day before the regularly scheduled Commission meeting and receive testimony and input on the CAA proposal to initiate an experimental fishery on this remnant population of San Miguel abalone. We think is in the best interest of all California sportsmen to bitterly oppose this blatant commercial attempt to reopen a commercial fishery on a remnant population of a recovering species. We urge you to protect the remaining abalone resource.

Stephen Benavides
Member, RAAC

Please send your comments to:

California Fish and Game Commission
Sonke Mastrup, Executive Director
1416 9th St. Suite 1320
Sacramento, CA 95814

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