By Anna Neumann, North Coast Regional Manager, Reef Check California Program
Historically, Native Americans fished abalone along the entire coast of California. The first commercial fishery was established in the 1850s by Chinese Americans. These fishermen mainly targeted green and black abalone and their catch peaked in 1879 with 4.1 million pounds. The Chinese-American fishermen collected abalone in shallow water and by 1900, the first regulations were placed on abalone fishing and the shallow water fishery was closed to commercial harvest [DFW, 2001]. Soon after this closure Japanese divers started exploiting the subtidal abalone stocks, first by free diving then by hard hat diving. In 1901 the first size limit was introduced, requiring all abalone to be 15 inches in circumference. In 1909 a commercial fishing license program was established and later a variety of regulation efforts went into effect including catch limits, gear restrictions, open/closed areas as well as open/closed seasons [DFW, 2003]. In 1913 the abalone fishery in southern California was closed, thus forcing the effort northward. From 1916 to 1935 the catch steadily increased to a peak of 3.9 million pounds (see chart) and then declined to 164,000 pounds in 1942 as fishermen of Japanese heritage were relocated during WWII [DFW, 2001]. In 1943 the southern California fishery was reopened to boost wartime food production [DFW, 2001] and remained open until 1996 [DFW 2003]. In 1949 the commercial abalone fishery in northern California closed from San Francisco to the California-Oregon border [DFW, 2003] due to dramatic declines [DFW, 2005]. The abalone catch experienced a second peak in 1957 with 5.4 million pounds but by 1969 the fishery was in rapid decline [DFW, 2001]. In 1996 abalone catch had fallen to 229,500 pounds; roughly 4% of the peak catch and the commercial fishery was closed statewide [DFW,2001].
Initially all abalone were managed as a single fishery, which made it difficult to address the collapse of a single species since the number of abalone caught remained stable as fishermen moved from one species to another [DFW, 2001; DFW, 2003]. This process, known as serial depletion, only becomes apparent when the catch is recorded separately for each species. From 1952 to 1968 in southern California, the decline in the number of pink abalone caught was offset by an increase in the number of red abalone brought in. In 1971, size regulations were placed on the pink abalone resulting in an abrupt decline in the number caught. However this drop was masked in overall catch data by an increase in green abalone catch. The red abalone catch began to decline in 1968 but this decline was masked by an increase in the number of green, black and white abalone caught [DFW, 2003; DFW, 2010].
The Abalone Recovery and Management Plan (AMRP) pinpoints some of the reasons for the failure of abalone fisheries. The AMRP states that the management effort was limited to placing limits on size to protect the population. This type of strategy, where the minimum size is set to allow the abalone to become sexually mature before reaching the legal fishing size, assumes that abalone will have several years of spawning success before they are fished. This approach ignores the possibility that abalone may go several years without spawning successfully [DFW, 2005]. A study done in 1998 in northern California found only one successful spawning event in a 4 year period while another study done in 1989 in southern California found only one successful spawning event in a 5 year period [DFW, 2005]. Relying solely on size limits may result in abalone being taken that have never successfully spawned, even though they have been sexually mature for several years [DFW, 2005].
An additional problem with the management of the fishery was a reliance on catch-per-unit-effort data to determine the abundance of abalone. Catch-per-unit-effort looks at how much effort is required to collect abalone. Catch-per-unit-effort is usually measured in time spent fishing relative to how many individuals were collected. An increase in the amount of effort required to catch abalone indicates overexploitation while unchanging figures indicates sustainable harvest [DFW, 2005]. However this method can be misleading for several reasons. Improved fishing techniques or technology can make fishing more effective (e.g. GPS which makes finding fishing grounds easier) and movement of fishing effort to substitute losses in overexploited areas and shifting of effort from one species to another all can result in a steady catch-per-unit-effort while the population is declining if they are not accounted for. From 1983 to 1996 the catch-per-unit-effort even increased while populations declined. This caused delays in conservative management efforts [DFW, 2005].
Additionally, managing solely with size limits and estimates of catch-per-unit-effort ignores the loss of dense aggregations of abalone needed for spawning success since abalone must be in close proximity to successfully reproduce [DFW,2005]. Unlike fish that can swim around and find mates even after a significant proportion of their population has been fished, if abalone populations are thinned out too much, the much-less-mobile abalone may not be able to travel the distance to find a mate.
The final factor that delayed the closing of the commercial abalone fisheries was the increase in demand by foreign markets and growing populations in California. The increase in economic incentives translated to increased political pressure to keep the fishery open despite collapsing stock [DFW, 2005].
The recreational take of abalone first became regulated in 1911 when fishing seasons were established. A bag limit of 10 abalone was established in southern California in 1913 and by 1931 a recreational license was required for all species.In 1953 the northern California recreational red abalone fishery became limited to breath-hold diving in hopes of protecting deeper abalone that free divers could not easily reach. By 1993 the recreational fishing of black abalone closed and in 1996 recreational fisheries for green, pink and white were also closed. The following year the entire coast of California south of San Francisco closed for recreational abalone fisheries. North of San Francisco, regulations have continued to get stricter to protect the declining populations of the state’s last abalone fishery. The abalone stamp was introduced in 1998 to generate revenue for population assessments, management and enforcement efforts. In 2000 the abalone report card became mandatory for all abalone divers and in 2008 a tagging system went into effect to help control illegal take as well as to document catch and effort [DFW, 2003]. In 2005 the Abalone Recovery and Management Plan was adopted by The California Fish and Wildlife Commission to manage the red abalone stocks in northern California [DFW, 2010]. Current abalone regulations, which went into effect April 2014, permits divers to take 3 abalone per day with a yearly limit of 18 abalone. Of the 18 abalone taken, only 9 may be taken from Marin and Sonoma Counties. The Fort Ross area in Sonoma is completely closed to abalone fishing. Fishing was also limited to the daylight hours after 8am [DFW, 2014].
To learn more about abalone fishing regulations, check the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s webpage. Currently the Department of Fish and Wildlife is developing a Red Abalone Fisheries Management Plan to further refine and implement the long-term management objectives of the Abalone Recovery and Management Plan. More information on this process can be found at: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/redabalonefmp/
Department of Fish and Wildlife. Abalone Recovery and Management (ARMP), December 9th 2005. http://dfg.ca.gov/marine/armp/index.asp
Department of Fish and Wildlife. Abalone Recovery and Management Plan Status Report-Northern California Red Abalone Fishery. May 2010. https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=29511&inline=true
Department of Fish and Wildlife. Abalone Status Report 2001. https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=34209&inline=true
Department of Fish and Wildlife. Abalone Status Report 2003. https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=34381&inline=true
Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2014 Sport Abalone Regulation Updates. April 1st 2014. https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=77615&inline=true