In California abalone is big business. In 1957 the yearly commercial abalone harvest peaked at 5 million pounds, and dropped to around 300,000 pounds annually in the mid 1990s. Sport harvesters in Northern California currently take some 2 million pounds of abalone per year, and spend an estimated $10 million to do so. With the closure of commercial take in 1997, the price of a poached abalone has risen to between $80 and $100 per abalone, and the value of abalone poached each year is estimated at $1.2 million. The abalone harvest in Sonoma and Mendocino counties has increased about 27 percent since southern waters were closed in 1997.

The regulations governing the take of abalone in California are among the most complex of any fishery. You may think this is an effort by the Fish and Game Commission to confuse and harass divers, but there are good reasons why the regulations have evolved to what they are today. In this article I hope to remove the mystery surrounding the latest changes to the regulations.

This April the new, reduced bag limit of 3 abalone per day and 24 per year takes effect, down from 4 per day and 100 per year. State biologists anticipate that this change will result in a 41 percent drop in take over 2000 levels. The casual abalone diver (myself included) sees a great deal of legal-sized abalone out there, and questions why the limit needed to be reduced. Fish and Game Senior Biologist Kon Karpov agrees that there are large numbers of legal abalone out there now, “…but, there are not very many sub-legal abalone.”

To understand why this is an important statement, you need to know a little bit about abalone biology. Abalone are slow growing. A 7-inch abalone is 11 to 14 years old, bigger abalone may be more than 25 years old. Abalone are broadcast spawners; they release eggs and sperm into the water column and hope they get together. A girl abalone cannot be much more than three feet away from a boy abalone for effective spawning to take place. So abalone density matters, if abalone concentrations drop below some critical level, effective spawning stops.

In many years the conditions required for an effective spawning season are not particularly good and few baby abalone are added to the reef. This may be due to food availability, water temperature, currents, etc. In other years conditions are “just right” and a good recruitment of juvenile abalone occurs. While some recruitment occurs every year, most of the abalone we see are due to the “big recruitment years.” These years of good recruitment happen irregularly, maybe as little as one in 10 or 20 years. The last big recruitment began around 1986, and the big ab populations we see now were “born” then.

California Department of Fish and Game monitor the health of the fishery by making underwater surveys of abalone habitat, by making creel estimates, and by conducting interviews. Did you know that the average diver now has to swim twice as far to get their four abalone as they did five years ago? This indicates that the near shore and near access abalones are being depleted, even though divers are still catching their limit.

Biologists not only look at the legal-sized population, but at the sub-legal, and areas of the ocean that are depleted. Their studies have shown that there are very few small abalone out there, and several areas are being depleted. Surveys show that deep water populations are reduced compared to a few years ago, and that abalone numbers in the Cabrillo Reserve are also lower. There is evidence of localized depletion in high use areas in Mendocino and Sonoma. Together these measurements are indicators of a problem with the population; there may not be enough abalone to sustain the fishery once today’s legal abalone are taken.

Kon Karpov likens the current situation to “driving a Cadillac without a fuel gauge. It runs well right now, but you never know when it will run out of gas.” Kon added, “You’ve got to maintain insurance in the system to maintain a sustainable fishery. The current change in bag limit does just that; it gives the abalone a chance to maintain a high population of adults until the next big recruitment,” says Karpov. After all, we do not want to see our Northern California abalone stocks go the way of the Southern California stocks.

On the positive side Kon and other biologists are confident that their cautious approach will work. Kon is hopeful that a good recruitment will occur in the next several years and the limits will go back up in the next 10 or so years.