In a blow to abalone hunters and a host of North Coast businesses that rely upon their patronage, the state Fish and Game Commission voted Thursday to suspend the harvest of red abalone in 2018, shutting down the last viable abalone fishery in California for at least a year.
The 4-0 decision came during a public meeting in San Diego that was emotional at times and sobering throughout, given evidence of mass starvation and mortality among red abalone along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts over the past several years.
Commissioner Anthony Williams of Huntington Beach made the motion to suspend abalone hunting next year, a shutdown that will be revisited at the end of 2018 to decide whether the fishery would be viable for sport hunters the following year.
“I want to err on the side of protection,” Williams said.
The unprecedented closure was recommended by state Fish and Wildlife officials under an established management plan, and state abalone experts said it was warranted for a population in peril.
But the decision was met with some frustration and anger among divers who said it went too far.
“I’m basically sick to my stomach right now,” said Monte Rio resident Matt Mattison, an avid diver, guide and fisherman who leads an online site devoted to ocean fishing. “It’s devastating.”
Other abalone hunters said they supported the move, if grudgingly.
Arcata diver Brandi Easter, 25, who traveled to San Diego for the meeting, told commissioners their own guidelines, “ideal or not,” gave them no choice but to close the fishery.
She described “extremely heartbreaking” scenes of starved abalone and empty shells at a favorite dive site. “The abalone fishery needs our stewardship, not our selfishness,” she said.
Many hunters had held out hope the commission would allow some minimum abalone harvest in order to support longtime traditions, the coastal economy and the adrenaline-fueled rush that accompanies the sport. Many said even reduced season catch limits of three or six abalone would at least provide a chance to dive.
“Anything that’s not a closure is a win for us today,” Josh Russo, president of the Sonoma County Abalone Network and of the statewide Watermen’s Alliance, told the commission.
Commissioners closely considered allowing restricted harvests and even discussed changing the legal catch size from 7 inches to 8 inches to help reduce impact.
But they ultimately determined the risks of allowing a harvest of the prized mollusks threatened to push the declining stock beyond the point of recovery.
Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the lead official on abalone matters, came to near tears and had to pause as he told commissioners he wished the news were different, given his own long enjoyment of the sport.
“I think Brandi put it best,” he said haltingly of Easter’s comments. “If we’re truly conservationists, you know, let’s step up and become conservationists.”
A key factor seemed to be a turn in commissioners’ understanding of how a closure might affect poachers, who are believed to take at least as many abalone out of the water each year as are legally harvested.
After hearing repeatedly from divers and from Fish and Wildlife staff that having law-abiding hunters on the water helped curb poaching, commissioners heard from David Bess, the agency’s law enforcement chief. He said that while some poachers operate “under cover” of legal fishing, shutting down the fishery would be a more effective approach to reining in the illegal harvest.