For more than two years, SCAN has been concerned about DFG biologists calling for severe reductions in our abalone fishery. The SCAN board of directors has been in regular communication with the biologists about their concerns, and our concerns about the methodology of DFG's surveys.
The DFG does random surveys on transects of selected index sites. The problem is that the index sites are all of the most heavily used, public access diving sites like Van Damme, Caspar, Fort Ross, etc. Also, the number of transects that are surveyed does not provide enough of a sample to provide meaningful data for management decisions.
DFG biologists point to abalone population densities showing a decline, according to their surveys. They have been particularly concerned about the Fort Ross site, which continues to be the leading site for landings in the abalone fishery. The public access at Fort Ross is popular because it is close to the Bay Area, and offers sheltered diving opportunities when the weather is bad.
Most local divers agree that Fort Ross is heavily used, but that in no way is an indication of the overall health of the coast-wide abalone fishery. SCAN expressed its concern about the survey methodology and the DFG held off on taking action in 2010, but came back this year with a suite of proposals, some of which were aimed at a 25% reduction in landings.
Other proposals included a new rule requiring divers to use separate containers for holding their abalone while diving in the water. This would help wardens enforce the rules against "dry-sacking" – one diver getting abalone for another diver. SCAN supported this rule and helped craft the wording of the regulation.
As these discussions were developing, there was a huge red tide event centered at Fort Ross. Thousands of abalone and other invertebrates washed up dead along the beaches of Sonoma County on August 27th of this year. Biologists scrambled to learn about the cause and extent of the die-off. DFG personnel took water samples, tissue samples from dead abalone, and re-surveyed the area to determine the extent of the die off.
In September, the Fish and Game Commission approved an emergency closure of all of Sonoma County for 180 days (technically starting on Oct. 7th, when the emergency rule was approved by the Office of Administrative Law). SCAN did not oppose an emergency closure but cautioned the Commission to confine the closure to the affected area. SCAN thinks the Commission went a little overboard by closing all of Sonoma's coast, because the die-off was limited to Salt Point, Fort Ross and Timber Cove.
DFG Biologist Ian Tanaguchi, who leads the department's abalone team, reported to the Commission that 30% of the abalone at Fort Ross had died off during the red tide. They were still uncertain about the cause. While it looks like a "hypoxic" event – lack of oxygen caused by the plankton and algal bloom of the red tide, the areas in shallow water seemed unharmed while deeper locations (with more oxygen) were more severely affected. This seemed inconsistent with a hypoxic event. Giving his report to the Commission in September, Tanaguchi did not report on the actual population densities the survey transects showed, but in October the DFG reported that the abalone population actually increased since last year at Fort Ross! This underlines SCAN's concern about the DFG's survey methodology. We don't know if the population is rising, falling or holding steady.
Since the DFG's surveys showed that the overall abalone population densities have not dropped to a level that would require reductions in the total allowable catch, even after a massive die-off at Fort Ross, SCAN argued that the proposed reduction of the annual bag limit, from 24 per year to 12 per year, was unwarranted. The Commissioners agreed. SCAN supported a 2-month closure at Fort Ross to relieve the pressure at this heavy-use site, which will close April and May.
SCAN remains concerned about the DFG's survey methodology and supports a rapid move toward the Long Term Management Plan called for in the Abalone Recovery and Management Plan (ARMP). We would like to work with DFG to help with to develop the long-term management plan. SCAN supports using some of the abalone punch-card funds to support "Rapid Response Teams" of recreational divers to provide additional data and cover areas that DFG can't reach because of the need to hit the water on short notice when the weather is good and the ocean is calm. This would provide more transects in areas not presently covered and raise the confidence level in the surveys of our abalone beds.