California fish and game commissioners are poised to decide Wednesday on a proposal that would extend the closure on recreational abalone fishing another two years to give the ailing species more time to recover from a near-total collapse on the North Coast.
The vote would extend until April 2021 an existing closure approved a year ago in the wake of a sharp, multi-year decline in the popular fishery, with no signs of a rebound, a key state official said Tuesday.
"There's no positive news," said Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the lead expert on abalone matters. "We're still seeing starving abalone this last season during the surveys. We're still seeing fresh empty shells."
The likely extension of the closure has been expected but is nonetheless a painful reminder of the uncertain future of a cherished tradition that brings friends and family together and is often passed down from one generation to the next. It could be years before abalone hunting on the level seen in recent decades along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts, the prime destination, is allowed again, Mastrup said.
"Frankly, the open access fishery that you've seen? We won't see that fishery probably for a couple of decades," Mastrup said.
The jeopardy is clear enough within the avid group of abalone hunters that the proposed extension on fishing isn't drawing much opposition.
In fact, one leading voice for the divers said Tuesday he would have supported a longer suspension of the harvest.
"Nobody's opposing the closure," said Josh Russo, president of the Watermen's Alliance, which represents diving organizations up and down the state. "I would have gone for five years."
Commercial fishing for abalone has been banned since 1997. The recreational fishery for red abalone was the only one left when a wave of environmental stressors began exacting its toll about five years ago.
That included a disease that knocked out seastars, a key predator to purple urchins, which are voracious competitors with abalone. After their numbers exploded, the kelp forests on which both species depend were stripped clean across vast swaths of the coast.
The Warm Blob, a persistent band of unusually warm water along the West Coast, also did damage to abalone and its habitat. State surveys showed a population that was diminished and starving.
Now, some divers say they have seen revived kelp beds and abalone while spearfishing or exploring the water.
But those spots are isolated, Mastrup said. Efforts to curb urchin numbers have helped, with volunteers and commercial harvesters collecting 57 tons along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts. State commissioners are poised to give another boost to those efforts Wednesday, increasing harvest limits on purple urchins.
But "there are still a lot of urchins," Mastrup said. "They're making a dent, but up to this point, we're not sure it's enough to make a bit difference."