California Game and Resource Management

CopyRight @ 1998

This is a discussion of what I think could be done to best manage the biological resources of the California intertidal areas. This is written in the context of Otters, sport divers, sport fishermen and commercial harvesters. It is framed around trying to find a practical way to replace present failed policies based on Neolithic hunting patterns and economic expediency, with policies that would allow for a sustained yield. Historically, the present policies have led to destruction of the harvested population. The suggestions considered here must be somewhat economically practical as well or they will be unenforceable.
This discussion covers most of the game that California divers encounter, especially abalone, but also includes lobster, abalone, halibut, rockfish, urchins and scallops

Some people are not going to like what I say. I don't like some of it either. I have to be far nicer to the commercial interests that I would like, but for this to work, it will have to be designed fairly objectively.

First, none of this matters anywhere there are otters. Those furry little appetites will not leave any game to manage, except for some kelp fish. It is noted that while abalone shells were found in some of the middens of the native coastal inhabitants, they were also fond of eating otters as well. After the Russian fur hunters did in the otters, abalone became even more common in the middens.
In a coastal ecology with otters, like the California Central Coast, the impact of the otters is overwhelming. Basically, there are no urchins, abalone, scallops, mussels or clams. The only remaining ones are either very deep or very well protected. Otters are primarily tactile hunters. They reach in any hole or crack to feel for a meal. Any ledge or crack, is literally scraped clean by the repeated visits of the otters.
Otters don't know about size or numerical limits. Go to the calm spot behind Lion Rock near Point Buchon and you will see about otter appetites. Otters go there to eat what they have caught. The bottom is littered with shells, very small shells.
There are predators everywhere and they keep the prey populations healthy. Where there are otters, there are basically no prey populations.
Otters are the only critter that is nearly as destructive as humans.

Game management policies must regulate the hunters and that includes the otters. Otters were a very endangered species. Now they are far more common and endanger the populations of many other species. the abalone, scallops and urchins of the central coast disappeared to the otters, not to human hunters. There never has been a sport or commercial fishery of the purple urchins, but they are gone from otter areas.

It would be nice if there was a commercial value to otters, but in any case they will have to be hunted in any areas where a commercial or sport fishery is desired.
In the case of the commercial and sport harvesters, present regulatory methods rely on size limits and seasons. They do not regulate overall catch and they are not based on the health and size of the population of the crop in the area harvested.
Partly the problem is cherished American traditions. A harvester is allowed to take all they can and is economically rewarded for their efficiency and effectiveness. That is wonderful, but the ocean doesn't work that way and does not care about human traditions.
Partly the problem is far older traditions and instincts from our neolithic hunting ancestors. There is no off switch to that deep hunting instinct. Some may question the existence of a hunting instinct, but it is one of the easiest instincts to recognize in humans. Just talk to a hunter and you will quickly be able to spot it.
    Any specie may be:
        Un-harvested or lightly harvested
        Harvested at sustainable levels
        Over-harvested to reduction in size of stock and population
        Over-harvested to collapse of population

Here, the assumption is made that it is most desirable to harvest at a sustainable yield or less.
The circumstances surrounding abalone and urchins is very similar and so they will be considered together, though there are some very important differences. One difference is that urchins serve as nurseries for other species like lobster and abalone. Another primary difference is that the lesser economic value of urchins means that the harvesters usually leave some behind. When the harvesters are done with abalone, there are basically none left. This is especially bad in the case of abalone, because their reproductive habits are such that they generally fail to reproduce if the population density is too low.

Strategies for game management to promote a sustainable harvest are simple. The hard part is enforcement. For wild crops to be harvested in a sustainable fashion, there has to be limits on the quantities taken to market. Not just season, not just size, but a limit on overall take, based on what the populations can provide. The commercial harvesters are already regulated by size at the dock. It would not be too difficult to regulate their yearly take. This might also offer incentives for the commercial harvesters to work to increase the size of the population so that they can take more.
In the case of abalone, scallop and urchin, it might be possible to create open water aquaculture that was outside the regulations governing take of the wild crop.
If the sport take approaches say 10 percent of the commercial take, that will have to be regulated as well, though that will be even more difficult to enforce.
In the case of abalone, it may be possible that the limit may be numerical instead of by poundage. This would encourage the harvesters to spread their harvest area more and leave a better distribution of breeding population behind. When the weather is good, it would be worth it to go farther a field to look for bigger abalone.

Lobster are a different situation. They have a large enough range and various habits such that their numerical population does not presently seemed threatened. Still, I would recommend that like abalone, the commercial legal size limit be a bit larger than the sport size limit. With the number of traps out there in most accessible areas, most lobsters are in and out of a trap many times before they reach legal size, but it is most likely that when it does finally reach legal size shortly after a molt, it will be pulled from a trap long before a sport fisher ever gets a chance at it. If you don't think this is fair, look at how many traps are out there and compare the commercial take to the sport take. There is no comparison. While divers do have good days, it is common for a boat load of sport divers to take fewer lobster in a day than one trap. If you still don't think it is fair, remember that the Fish and Game removed all limits on how many traps a commercial fisher could set. This is a law that is enforceable.
If data suggests that the lobster harvest goes above what is sustainable, then a limit on what is brought to market would have to be imposed.

The commercial harvesters would just as soon have no competition from the sport fishers. As far as I am concerned, they can get off where ever they want. True, they are just making a living. That is why I recommend against sport divers harassing traps, but the fishery must be looked at from a perspective of the people of the state who desire to fish and take game. The cost of lobster to sport fishers per pound is usually astronomical. Sport fishers pay for licenses and there is a great deal of tax revenue generated by the commercial activities associated with sport diving. Per pound, it is far more than that generated by the commercial fishers.

If it wasn't for the reproductive habits of the lobsters and their extremely large habitat, their populations would already be badly reduced.

The commercial fishers like to claim that they don't negatively impact the sport divers take. This is not true. In recent years, it has become common wisdom that the best place for sport fishers to hunt lobster is on the front side of Catalina Island where commercial trapping is not allowed. Actually, the terrain there makes for very difficult hunting as compared to many other places, it's just that there are relatively very lobster most other places.

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