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Jail sentences for North Coast abalone poachers highlighted as state braces for closure of fishery

A Bay Area man who required a cliff rescue amid his crime and a Fort Bragg restaurateur are among about 200 people prosecuted for illegal harvest or trade of abalone caught off the Mendocino Coast last year, authorities said.

Where poachers often face fines and temporary abalone fishing bans, both men additionally were given jail time and three years probation in cases highlighted this week by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Wildlife officials spotlighted the cases in anticipation of rising black-market values they fear could prompt a wave of poaching and illegal sales as game wardens seek to enforce an unprecedented statewide shutdown this year of the ailing red abalone fishery.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/7936384-181/jail-sentences-for-north-coast

Posted on Categories Sonoma Coast, Sustainable Living, WildlifeTags , , , , ,

Abalone diving banned next year to protect population on brink of collapse

Tara Duggan, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Sport abalone diving in Northern California, a tradition going back generations, will not be allowed next year in the region because biologists say the state’s population is on the brink of collapse.

Thursday’s decision came at a meeting of the California Fish and Game Commission in San Diego after a warning from scientists at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife that the population is in severe decline.The commission voted unanimously to close the fishery for one year, which has not happened since it closed the abalone fishery in the southern part of the state in 1997. The Northern California season would normally be open from April to November.

“There are multiple indications that this fishery is collapsing,” said Cynthia Catton, an environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There’s no sign that it’s even hit the bottom yet. We’re seeing continuing active mortality. We’re seeing continued starvation conditions.”

Read more at: Abalone diving banned next year to protect population on brink of collapse – San Francisco Chronicle

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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.

Read more at: Fate of troubled abalone fishery in hands of California Fish and Game Commission

Posted on Categories Sonoma Coast, WildlifeTags , , ,

Four Bay Area residents arrested on suspicion of abalone poaching, black market sales 

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Four suspected poachers believed to have removed hundreds of red abalone illegally from the beleaguered North Coast fishery were arrested this week at their Bay Area homes at the conclusion of a five-month investigation, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The suspects are part of a larger crew used to collect abalone offshore of Sonoma and Mendocino counties for black market sales to a network of individuals, officials said. It does not appear the shellfish were sold to markets or restaurants.

The suspects — Thepbangon Nonnarath of Oakley, Dennis Nonnarath of El Sobrante and Thu Thi Tran and Cuong Huu Tran, both of San Jose — were arrested on a variety of charges that included conspiracy to commit a crime, as well as illegal commercial sales, falsification of abalone tags and exceeding the season limit of abalone.

Their arrests come as fishery regulators are grappling with a rapid decline in red abalone populations, thanks to shifting ocean conditions that have prompted significant starvation of the prized mollusks, due in part to exploding purple urchin populations that have grazed much of the ocean floor clean.

Read more at: Four Bay Area residents arrested on suspicion of abalone poaching, black market sales | The Press Democrat –

Posted on Categories Sonoma Coast, WildlifeTags , , ,

More limits foreseen for California abalone fishery as scientist raises alarm 

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The crisis comes in the wake of a massive deterioration in the spread and health of North Coast kelp forest over the past several years, a consequence of what scientists call “a perfect storm” of large-scale stressors that include two years of unprecedented and prolonged warm ocean conditions.

A marine wildlife expert put California fish and game commissioners on notice Thursday that significant new restrictions in the abalone fishery — including more closures — may be necessary next year because of continued starvation and die-off among the sought-after mollusks.

Even a shutdown of the iconic North Coast sport fishery should be on the table, though only as a worst-case scenario, said Sonke Mastrup, invertebrate program manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“What we’re seeing is going to have long-term implications,” Mastrup said in an interview. “This is not a temporary problem, and what that turns into, we don’t know yet, and it’s appropriate to start having the conversation so people aren’t shocked down the road.”

No decisions regarding the 2018 season need to be made until later this year, after the results of annual underwater surveys conducted in August and September are available, Mastrup told the California Fish and Game Commission at its regular, bi-monthly meeting, held in Smith River.

But commissioners and the public need to be prepared for the possibility of drastic measures, given declining health and reproductive capacity among red abalone on the North Coast, he told commissioners.

Read more at: More limits foreseen for California abalone fishery as scientist raises alarm | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories Habitats, Sonoma Coast, WildlifeTags , , , ,

Unprecedented delay in California abalone season

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Wildlife managers hope lessening pressure on the imperiled mollusks will help the fishery rebound from a catastrophic mix of ocean conditions that have prompted extensive starvation in abalone stocks.

In a normal year, veteran diver Matt Mattison would likely have started this weekend clad in neoprene, plying the waves off the Sonoma Coast, eager to bag his first red abalone of the season.

Instead, the Monte Rio resident was among a group of volunteers who fanned out Saturday along the North Coast’s most popular abalone hunting grounds to head off any divers or rock pickers who mistakenly turned up and to inform them the traditional season start has been delayed.

A jubilant occasion that typically draws hundreds, perhaps thousands, of restless abalone hunters to coastal waters each year, the April 1 opener is a little like Christmas for those who pursue the succulent sea snails. It’s a rite of spring.

But after four decades of time-honored ritual — cause for reunions of family and friends on the Sonoma and Mendocino coast every year — the California Fish and Game Commission has taken emergency action curtailing this year’s season, axing both April and November from the calendar and sharply reducing the allowable annual catch, from 18 abalones to 12.

It will be the first April since 1921 — a time when the season began in mid-March — that red abalone cannot legally be harvested, according to Jerry Kashiwada, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Read more at: Unprecedented delay in California abalone season shuts down North Coast in April | The Press Democrat

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California sets stricter limits on abalone

Tara Duggan, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Citing poor environmental conditions affecting the Northern California red abalone fishery, the California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to reduce the annual limit on the recreational fishery from 18 to 12 per diver.

The move follows recommendations from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to reduce the annual abalone take by about 24 percent. The agency and many divers have been at odds as to the best way to respond to underwater surveys that show the abalone population facing starvation due to kelp forest decline. Researchers also found that abalones are not reproducing at sustainable rates, partly because of warm ocean temperatures.

“We’re concerned that these warm water conditions that caused or partly caused these situations may persist next year,” Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager of the invertebrate program at Fish and Wildlife, said at the meeting, which took place in San Diego.

The new limits, which will go into effect in 2017, follow a previous reduction in 2014 that changed the annual limit from 24 to 18, based on rules in the state’s Abalone Recovery and Management Plan.

About 95 percent of diving takes place in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, bringing in an estimated $44 million a year in tourism revenue, according to an analysis done by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Read more at: California sets stricter limits on abalone

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New limits posed for California’s abalone fishery amid poor ocean conditions 

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The state Fish and Game commission is meeting over two days next week in San Diego and will take up the emergency abalone proposal on Wednesday. The meeting will be live-streamed at cal-span.org.More information is available at fgc.ca.gov.

Concern about abnormal ocean conditions off the North Coast is prompting a move by state wildlife officials to restrict next year’s abalone fishery, perhaps halving the number of sea snails individual hunters would be permitted to harvest and even lopping a month or two off the traditional seven-month season.

The dramatic cutback proposed for the popular recreational fishery comes as red abalone stocks are showing the severe effects of wide-scale habitat disruption, including the die-off of kelp forests, leading to starvation for abalone and other sea life.

While the survival of the species is not currently in question, the sustainability of the fishery is “threatened,” said Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager for California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s marine region.

“We should try to be a little conservative until we know what is going to transpire, because if you overdo it, it’s hard to take back,” Mastrup said. “Once you’ve killed too many, you’ve killed too many.”

The state Fish and Game Commission is set to decide Wednesday in San Diego on the abalone harvest limits, including several proposals meant to protect stocks that draw divers and pickers by the thousands to the wave-battered Sonoma and Mendocino coasts from April to November each year.

Read more at: New limits posed for California’s abalone fishery amid poor ocean conditions | The Press Democrat

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Seafood’s new normal: An ecosystem at risk

Tara Duggan, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

In the shallow waters off Elk, in Mendocino County, a crew from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife dived recently to survey the area’s urchin and abalone populations. Instead of slipping beneath a canopy of leafy bull kelp, which normally darkens the ocean floor like a forest, they found a barren landscape like something out of “The Lorax.”

A single large abalone scaled a bare kelp stalk, hunting a scrap to eat, while urchins clustered atop stark gray stone that is normally striped in colorful seaweed.

“When the urchins are starving and are desperate, they will leave the reef as bare rock,” said Cynthia Catton, an environmental scientist with Fish and Wildlife. Warm seawater has prevented the growth of kelp, the invertebrates’ main food source, so the urchins aren’t developing normally; the spiky shells of many are nearly empty. As a result, North Coast sea urchin divers have brought in only one-tenth of their normal haul this year.

The plight of urchins, abalones and the kelp forest is just one example of an extensive ongoing disruption of California’s coastal ecosystem — and the fisheries that depend on it — after several years of unusually warm ocean conditions and drought. Earlier this month, The Chronicle reported that scientists have discovered evidence in San Francisco Bay and its estuary of what is being called the planet’s sixth mass extinction, affecting species including chinook salmon and delta smelt.

Baby salmon are dying by the millions in drought-warmed rivers while en route to the ocean. Young oysters are being deformed or killed by ocean acidification. The Pacific sardine population has crashed, and both sardines and squid are migrating to unusual new places. And Dungeness crab was devastated last year by an unprecedented toxic algal bloom that delayed the opening of its season for four months.

Read more at: Seafood’s new normal: An ecosystem at risk

Posted on Categories Sonoma Coast, WildlifeTags , , , ,

North Coast kelp beds ‘like a desert’ this year

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Abalone diver Richard Hayman already had been observing troubling shifts in underwater conditions off the North Coast when he found himself gazing around the ocean floor in Arena Cove with a new level of alarm.

“It’s like a desert out there,” he recalled, describing a barren underwater landscape stripped of vegetation by colonies of purple urchins that vastly outnumbered the mollusks he sought. It looked, he said, “like a fire went through.”

During 25 years of diving, Hayman had come to know the area offshore the Mendocino County town of Point Arena as a source of succulent abalones, abundant and plump with meat.

 In June, he came ashore with his limit of three, despite a substantial reduction in the number of shellfish he saw. But they were so withered that, once removed from their shells, the creatures weighed less than a third of what they normally would.

“They’re starving to death,” the Calistoga man said. “It’s obvious.”

Hayman, 52, was among a dozen veteran divers who recently shared their observations at the midway point to the 2016 red abalone season, which resumes Aug. 1 after a month-long break and runs through November.

What they revealed was near consensus that all is not as usual out there, off the edge of the land, beneath the waves.

Scientists had predicted as much just before the season’s April 1 start, describing an unprecedented collapse of the North Coast’s iconic bull kelp forest and the resulting gloomy outlook for the abalone fishery and the overall ecosystem.

Divers reporting in over the past few weeks — people like Napa diver Andy Treweek, 55 — witnessed as much in some areas, where they discovered a few undersized abalone living on near-barren ocean floor.

Read more at: North Coast kelp beds ‘like a desert’ this year