Will the Abalone Fishery Return to San Miguel Island?

Commercial Fishermen Eager to Harvest Once-Decimated Shellfish Await October 14 Decision

Abalone harvesting has a long history on the Channel Islands, including fishing camps such as these set up by Japanese settlers. The industry was shut down in 1997, though some divers would like the state to consider reopening it. | Credit: Courtesy of islapedia.com

Could flattened and fried slices of freshly caught Channel Islands abalone once again grace restaurant menus? Will abalone divers return to the Santa Barbara Harbor, where those underwater snail seekers were once the heart and soul of the commercial fishing industry? 

“I’m diving urchin out there, and I’m seeing more abalone than urchin everywhere, and they’re starting to die of old age,” says veteran fisherman Jeffrey Baldwin, one of many former ab divers who are pushing for the California Fish & Game Commission to consider reopening the fishery off of San Miguel Island. “We don’t want to harvest them all. We’re asking for very little abalone.”

The potential for studying the issue is on the commission’s October 14 agenda. It’s the second time that the state is being asked to investigate since the entire commercial abalone industry was shut down in 1997 due to concerns over disease and overfishing. The first reexamination was 15 years ago, when the state, with the help of fishermen, studied the San Miguel Island stocks rigorously, but the commission ultimately determined that more research was needed. (See independent.com/abs2008 for a detailed report on that saga.)

Then came a surge of more pressing issues for the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) — the entire collapse of two other abalone populations, for example — and the studies stalled around 2010. For the past two years, the aging population of former ab divers — led primarily by Baldwin and Morro Bay–based rabble-rouser Steve Rebuck, who tout videos and other anecdotal evidence of booming ab populations — have filed the proper paperwork to trigger the commission into initiating a study of San Miguel Island’s stocks.

In an age of uncertainty when it comes to the changing climate and all that means for complex ecosystems — particularly those under the ocean that scientists are only starting to understand — the potential of reopening a fishery that was previously hit with both disease and human harvesting may seem far-fetched. Throw in the surprise collapse of Northern California’s red abalone population in 2017, the continuing extinction march of the white abalone in Southern California, and dwindling kelp growth statewide due to the warm-water-fueled spread of purple urchins, and the notion grows increasingly pipe-dream-ish. 

But it’s not impossible, say state regulators, and there may be multiple creative paths to at least letting some of these divers return to their favorite hunting grounds. 

“We are very much interested in looking at the island,” said Sonke Mastrup, the DFW’s environmental program manager for marine invertebrates. His staff is tasked with determining whether to advise the commission that further analysis is appropriate, which could be one way that the October 14 meeting could go, or if the state has more pressing issues and should keep this idea on the back burner.

When we spoke a month ago, Mastrup was leaning toward suggesting that the studies commence, but his official recommendation was not public as of this writing. Last week, via email, Mastrup said that recently obtained data from 2019 showed poor kelp conditions, increased urchin barrens, and declining abalone abundance. Though he couldn’t confirm the staff’s recommendation, Mastrup did offer, “What I can say is we are always open to investigating an issue when the circumstances make it possible and justified.”

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The analysis, if approved, would help Mastrup and everyone else cut through the two competing narratives: the more dismal one, supported by the Channel Islands National Park Kelp Forest Monitoring Program and other scientific studies, and the more optimistic outlook, as evidenced in the underwater videos and personal observations by ab divers. “We are getting extremely conflicting stories,” said Mastrup. “We will not support a fishery until we have this thing figured out.”

Were the studies to start, Mastrup imagined it would take more than a year, probably at least two, to determine if a fishery was warranted or not. But he’s not convinced that this specific approach, which was first outlined in the prior round of analysis under the heading Appendix H, is the only option for ab divers to get back out there. 

“Is San Miguel Island red abalone the best target?” he asked. “I don’t know how to answer that.” Green abalone populations, which exist from Point Conception to San Diego, are doing well, for instance. “That may be a better potential fishery than red abalone tucked on one side of one island off the coast,” said Mastrup.

The ab divers could also apply under the state’s new Experimental Fishing Permit program, which is currently being used to catch box crab. “That would create a legal structure to do this and do it in a measured way,” said Mastrup. “The goal is science, but you’re gonna be able to make some money — not a lot, but enough to cover costs and maybe then some.”

Abalone is a particularly difficult species to manage because they take a decade or more to mature. “It’s a really long lag, which makes responding to a problem really difficult,” said Mastrup. “By the time you realize there’s a problem, a lot of damage has been done to the stock.”

Fishermen like Baldwin, however, believe that they are the ideal folks to track as much. “We could end up being the stewards. We’re their eyes. We’d make sure nobody cheats,” said Baldwin. “Us older guys want the abalone to be there for your kids and my kids and our grandkids. We don’t want to overharvest it, but we want to manage it. Managing it is not just closing it. That’s not management. It’s just bad behavior as far as I’m concerned.”

The California Fish & Game Commission will decide on whether to study the potential for a San Miguel Island abalone fishery during the meeting on Thursday, October 14. See fgc.ca.gov or click here for the agenda and meeting details. 

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