Mollusk of the Moment

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.

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