Will Abalone Harvesting Return to San Miguel?
by Martha Sadler
In 1997, San Miguel Island was the last bastion of commercial California red abalone fishing. Decimated by overfishing, disease, voracious otters, and even an African parasite called a sabellid worm, all species of the once-abundant disk-shaped mollusks had practically disappeared from the California coast by the mid-1990s. So serious was the problem that in 1997 the state decided to ban commercial and recreational harvesting of abalone south of the Golden Gate. As a result, all of the abalone now served in Santa Barbara restaurants or sold in stores is either imported or raised in the abalone farms that now dot the coast.
But one day soon, local diners may bite into their abalone carpaccio and taste Santa Barbara seafood, found in the wild and harvested legally, if the complete ban on abalone harvesting is lifted to accommodate a small fishery at San Miguel Island. Officials at the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) recently adopted the Abalone Recovery and Management Plan, which calls for the consideration of a limited rescission in the waters surrounding the northernmost Channel Island; but that depends largely on how many abalone now live there.
To that end, a flotilla of boats carrying UCSB biologists, commercial fishers, marine environmentalists, and officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the California Department of Fish and Game headed out to San Miguel Island on Tuesday to get, in more ways than one, to the bottom of the issue. Prompted and partly funded by the Commercial Abalone Association (CAA) — made up primarily of former abalone fishers — the diverse group sought to accomplish nothing less than an accurate, wholesale count of the abalone population in the proposed area. Using a grid pattern, 55 divers from every faction will spend five days counting abalone. The divers also mapped the kelp and algae that comprise abalone’s primary food source.
Michael Harrington, a longtime local fisherman and one of the divers, explained that the CAA is taking a very proactive role in reopening the fishery. It has its own plan, which is more specific that the CDFG plan. Last revised in June, the San Miguel Island Restricted Abalone Fishery Market Sector Plan proposes rules for future fishing, including an 8-inch minimum take size and a cap on how many abalone can be taken based on the overall population. The number of fishermen permitted to harvest the abalone would initially be restricted to those who held abalone licenses in 1997.
But not everyone shares Harrington and the CAA’s optimism. Fish and Game biologist Carrie Wilson, who is based in Monterey, said that she does not expect the San Miguel fishery to reopen anytime soon. She cited the lengthy recovery process of the abalone, reasons for which include spotty reproductive cycles, vulnerability to hungry otters, and a host of similarly intractable issues. And she pointed out that abalone have survived better north of San Francisco because they haven’t been subject to commercial fishing since World War II, and recreational abalone fishers are not allowed to use scuba or other oxygen-supplying gear. If all goes as Harrington hopes, the flotilla will return after five days with a complete count showing lots of red abalone.