I like abalone. Usually with butter and and a little garlic. I also like them in the ocean but that’s problematic for divers down south. To see healthy populations and to take them as game means driving 9-11 hours north to the often inhospitable Sonoma and Mendicino coastline. The populations of abs south of there have been severely thinned over the past 20 years all along the central coast. As for southern California, they’ve almost been wiped out in the bight by a variety of factors including overfishing and the emergence of withering foot, a devastating disease to abalone populations. Resident populations of any measurable density are rare south of Pt. Conception with one exception…San Miguel Island.
Jutting out at the northern end of the Channel Islands, San Miguel Island is the exception to the rule that says we can’t have nice abalone populations anymore. Because of a variety of environmental factors such as cooler waters and remoteness, red abalone, the staple of the prized north coast fisherys, have historically been present there in sizeable numbers. I know because I took part in a series of surveys in the 2006-2008 to determine the population, size, and density of the resident reds. It was a really amazing cooperative effort that saw diverse groups working together in a way that surprised me. Sponsored by the California Abalone Association, the joint effort saw dozens of divers consisting of fishermen, federal and state biologists, and local NGO’s staff all working side-by-side, counting remnant abs using a standardized DFG protocol over a week-long expedition. I personally rank it as one of the highlights of my scientific diving career and it still makes me smile when I think of our big old flotilla of various pleasure, research, and commercial vessels .and the tangible excitment we all felt as we left each morning to run our transects and get counting. We collected a lot of really good data.
Now the problem with collecting data is that it almost always open to interpretation by basically anyone who can get there hands on it. That’s was what happened when the final reports on the surveys were released. Basically, the state scientists looked at the numbers and estimated a number that was just below the required density to trigger moving forward on a path that might reopen the fishery. The CAA members didn’t accept this at face value and under the leadership of Chris Voss, set about to to do something unheard of for a commercial fishing effort in southern California fishery management. They reached out to the academic community. In short order, they set-up a real working relationship with the Bren school at UC Santa Barbara, contracted with international experts, and eventually came up with a self-funded proposal for an experimental fishing program. Benefits included real practical applications of recovery management skills that would apply to all of the southern California bight as pink and green abs made their way back from the edge. It would also examine how fishing pressure would effect reemerging populations. It was amended and tweaked over several years into a scaled-back proposal that would have amounted to a modest take of a mere 1% of the islands total population while providing lots of needed data and practical information.
The proposal was taken under final consideration by the Fish and Game Commission’s Marine Resource Committee in a public meeting in La Jolla yesterday afternoon. To make a long story short, the proposal was declined to be advanced for consideration by the full Commission. It was not because it was a bad plan or because everybody there were tree huggers who hate commercial fishermen. It was declined because the minimum population threshold as prescribed by the Abalone Recovery and Management Plan was not met based upon the official report issued by the DFG. Simple as that. The funny thing though is after that decision was made, the meeting really got interesting. There was no gloating or cries of outrage. Instead, there was lots of ideas flying around about how maybe San Miguel wasn’t the best spot to try this plan out but that the north coast might be. NGO representatives talked of wanting to find a third path that wasn’t a yes or no answer. One of the F&G Commissioners, Richard Rogers, suggested that maybe it was time to reexamine the threshold numbers in the recovery plan itself. The room seemed to agree and an offer of help developing new population models was offered by the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Chris Mobley. It just kind of snowballed from there and before I could wrap my head around the situation, it didn’t feel like something had been lost but rather that something unexpected had been seemingly gained. Now I know the CAA will consider this a major setback and it is for them after over a decade and a half of hard work. I also know there a lot of people who are going to be glad that commercial fishers have once more been turned back from the sea. I didn’t get that vibe in the room however. It was just a lot a people working together to protect and manage the red abalone of San Miguel Island. No major animosity. No inflammatory rhetoric. Just honest conviction and commitment.
As a diver, I’ve always believed we should have a commitment that translates into a duty and responsibility to help take care of an ocean that gives us so much. Yesterday in La Jolla, I witnessed a divergent group of people who demonstrated just that attitude and it made me think that maybe there is hope.