Fate of troubled abalone fishery in hands of California Fish and Game Commission

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

California fish and game commissioners will decide Thursday if there is to be an abalone season next year in a much-anticipated vote with far-reaching ramifications for the popular but imperiled North Coast fishery and the economy it supports.

Under a plan that has framed red abalone hunting regulations since 2005, state fish and wildlife officials have urged the commission to suspend the 2018 season in hopes of preventing further depletion of the stock.

But the commission’s five appointed members are clearly interested in a compromise that would allow divers and rock-pickers some opportunity, however limited, to participate in a beloved tradition that draws thousands of people and their families to the Sonoma and Mendocino coast each year.

“It’s an iconic fishery,” said Napa County vintner Eric Sklar, president of the state Fish and Game Commission. “There’s so many people who find real joy in abalone fishing, and we hate to shut it down. That’s a given.”

The stakes are high and the future uncertain amid an unprecedented, three-year decline in the North Coast kelp forest, which provides critical food and habitat for the succulent mollusks hunted off the California coast for generations.

What agency scientists have called “a perfect storm” of environmental factors in play over the past six years has killed off large numbers of red abalone, starving many of those that remain and drastically reducing their reproductive fitness. One of those factors is the explosion of tiny, purple urchins that have decimated kelp and other abalone food supplies.

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