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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

For most of this century, California's abalone fishery was a multi-million dollar enterprise. Coveted for their rich meat and colorful shells, these mollusks once lined the ocean floor like cobblestones. But their numbers have dwindled and several species reached the brink of extinction, until there was only one major commercial abalone fishery left in the state. This spring, state officials took a controversial step and closed this fishery down. From San Francisco, reporter Rosie Weiser explains.


RUDOLPH: It's Living on Earth. I'm John Rudolph. For most of this century, California's abalone fishery was a multi-million dollar enterprise. The large mollusks, coveted for their rich meat and colorful shells, once lined the ocean floor like cobblestones. But gradually their numbers dwindled and several species of abalone reached the brink of extinction, until there was only one major commercial abalone fishery left in the state. This spring, state officials took a controversial step and closed the fishery down for at least 4 months. From San Francisco, reporter Rosy Weiser explains.

(Motor running)

WEISER: It's a warm, hazy spring day a few miles off the California coast south of San Francisco, and Don Stripfel is getting ready to brave the chilly Pacific in search of red abalone.

(Motor continues)

STRIPFEL: I have all my gear on, I (inaudible beneath motor) the abalone iron and my supply of fresh air.

(Gusts of air mingle with the motor)

WEISER: He steps off the Quicksilver, his old 24-foot boat, and plunges deep into the water to look for the silvery-pink sparkle of the abalone shells. He'll find them attached firmly to rocks like suction cups by a big fleshy muscle. Meanwhile, Bob Sexton keeps watch on deck. In the past the hunting partners found scores of the large sea snails among these reefs. But lately their catch has been small: about 10 apiece on a good day. That's partly because of their age; both men are approaching their 70s and have been diving for almost 30 years. But Bob says there's also another reason.

SEXTON: There's nothing in the wild in the quantity, the numbers that there used to be. There's not as many abalone as there used to be. There's not as many salmon as there used to be. There's not as many condors, eagles. The only thing that there's more of is people. And people love the ocean, and they all like abalone, it seems.

(Motor continues; footfalls on deck)

WEISER: After 2 hours under the waves, Don floats to the surface and climbs back on board.

STRIPFEL: I have returned.

SEXTON: You have returned.

WISER: Weighed down with scuba equipment, he waddles awkwardly. But he's only carrying 3 8-inch abalone in his string bag.

SEXTON: Was it a successful quest?

STRIPFEL: Oh, I got just a couple. But it was fun.


WEISER: Despite the shrinking harvest, the 2 divers say they still find these outings exhilarating. And profitable. Abalone meat is gourmet fare, and as supplies have dwindled prices have skyrocketed. Just a few dozen dives a year can bring in about $100,000. So, it's no wonder divers are so upset about the state's closure of California's last wild abalone fishery, which took effect just 24 hours after Don and Bob's trip. Gary Verhagen is another of the hundred or so men affected by the ban. He says the prospect of losing his livelihood prompted him to put his coastal home up for sale.

VERHAGEN: It's really hard when you make decent money at what you do, then go out and work for McDonald's afterwards, is what we're talking about. I've been in the fisheries for 21 years, I'm 46 years old. I have to go out and retrain myself for another occupation.

WEISER: The emergency ban forbids all abalone hunting from San Francisco to the Mexican border: a $2 million a year industry. It follows new research indicating a 95% drop in the red abalone catch since the 1950s. Biologists found that pollution, disease, and competition from sea otters contributed to the alarming decline. But they ranked overfishing as one of the biggest factors. Dr. Mia Tegna is a research scientist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla. She studied abalone for 20 years.

TEGNA: Abalones have been so badly fished that stocks have collapsed in many of the areas that were productive beds for many years.

WEISER: Commercial diving in northern California was halted 50 years ago. Sport diving there is still permitted, but it's strictly regulated. And scientists say those red abalone populations are healthy. The southern fishery was also regulated, but biologists determined that any continued fishing pressure would prove too much for the imperiled species to bear. Dr. Tegna says abalone are particularly vulnerable to over-harvesting because they need dense populations to reproduce.

TEGNA: Abalones reproduce by releasing their sperm and eggs into the sea water. For fertilization to be successful requires a very high concentration of sperm. So if the male and the female are more than a meter or so apart, fertilization doesn't work.

WEISER: Abalone can live more than 50 years and it's the older, larger adults that divers like to catch most. But scientists say culling this population devastates stocks, because the fully mature females produce the most eggs.

(A boat motor revs up)

WEISER: Even divers like Gary Verhagen acknowledge that stocks may be suffering.

VERHAGEN: I know that there are some problems in areas with the resource. It doesn't come from us, from harvesting.

WEISER: Others, like diver Don Thompson, say the data have been exaggerated to further an environmental agenda that values preserving wildlife over the well being of citizens.

THOMPSON: It's a witch hunt, okay? The whole thing is a big lie about the fear of extinction.

WEISER: But some members of California's fishing community don't think this is a useful response to the moratorium. Zeke Grada is executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association.

GRADA: Don't get caught up in attacking the science of others. The denial tactics don't work. Let's take a good hard look at our resources and not not figure out well, there's still some more for us to eke out a living on. How do we increase the numbers? What do we have to do to make sure that the habitat is protected?

WEISER: Mr. Grada says abalone divers knew their resource was in trouble, but unlike many California fishermen who face collapsing fisheries, they didn't push for protections. But he says state officials were also slow to respond to the first signs of an abalone crisis. The abalone situation echoes a common trend. A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that US regulators often wait too long to protect fisheries. The report said that almost half of today's Federally managed fisheries are no longer sustainable because of over-fishing. The global pattern is even more serious. According to the United Nations about 70% of the world's marine fisheries are in trouble. Zeke Grada worries that even now, a cash-strapped agency like the California Department of Fish and Game still won't do enough during the moratorium to bring back the red abalone.

GRADA: If the industry collapses, and there's no longer divers about, who then is going to be putting pressure on the Department to do the research? It'll just be a resource that will be out there just kind of languishing.

WEISER: Mr. Grada says the state and the unemployed divers could benefit from working together. He suggests using the divers' expertise by putting them to work helping monitor and restore abalone populations. Fish and Game says it will spend the next few months looking into this idea along with others, and officials will meet in September to decide whether to extend the abalone closure.

(Boat motor running)

WEISER: But all sides speculate the fishing ban won't end soon. Some predict it could last as long as 20 years. For Living on Earth, I'm Rosy Weiser in San Francisco.



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