Is Red Abalone Recovery in California Out of Reach?
My first experience with abalone in 2011 was cold. I stood at the water’s edge in a hoodie, jacket, gloves, and a beanie, in the whipping wind, and watched divers get out of the water and tag their catches with shaking fingers and blue lips. When our group exited the waves their hands were so cold that they couldn’t cut the tags and write in the dates, so I did it. The second time I did get into the water, but in sheer terror of great whites, only got in where I could absolutely see the bottom, and harvested nothing. The third time was life changing. The water was as clear as glass with a blue green tint and swayed with the swell, the kelp reaching out to me with long green arms in effortless elegance. The colors of life around and beneath me were vibrant in a way I had never experienced before. I harvested my limit and I was hooked.
Abalone diving became a regular endeavor for our friends and family and spring activities were planned around when we would be in the water. Then in 2018, the northern California red abalone recreational fishery was closed, with the potential to open back up in 2022. This year the California Fish and Game Commission (FGC) announced that the closure would be extended through 2026 or potentially beyond, which left me wondering what was happening and why recovery has been out of reach.
Commercial fishing of all abalone species in California has been closed since 1997 due to overfishing, but this recreational fishery for red abalone remained open in northern California until 2018. The reasons for the closure are all intertwined and relate to climate change.
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In 2013 a mass die-off of twenty sea star species from sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS) was observed from San Mateo to Mendocino. The loss of sea stars allowed for an increase in the purple sea urchin (Rogers-Bennett and Catton 2019) because sea stars are an important predator of purple sea urchin. These purple sea urchins compete with abalone for food, which is primarily bull kelp, and are more aggressive in consumption than abalone (Rogers-Bennett and Catton 2019).
In 2014, a marine heatwave (MHW) hit the northern coast of California and remained until 2016; MHWs are associated with nutrient poor conditions that impact marine species growth and result in declines of marine populations and ecosystems (Rogers-Bennett and Catton 2019). Due to the presence of the MHW there was a rapid and massive decline of kelp forests, which resulted in a decline in the staple food of abalone, a lack of nutrient storage, and a decline in species diversity (Rogers-Bennett and Catton 2019, Rogers-Bennett et al. 2021).
With the increase in population of purple sea urchin, the loss of sea stars, and competition for the available kelp as forests declined, red abalone began to “succumb to prolonged starvation, and a mass mortality event” took place with researchers observing empty shells and weak and shrunken individuals (Rogers-Bennett and Catton 2019). As a result of extensive declines in the population in 2018 the Fish and Game Commission closed the fishery due to “extreme environmental conditions” (CDFW 2022a).
Current research indicates that kelp forests on the northern California coast continue to remain at small percentages of the numbers they once were (less than 5% of good years) and that there continues to be a lack of sea stars to prey upon purple sea urchin (McPherson et al. 2021).
Abalone that have survived the mass mortality events are not in healthy body condition due to the lack of food and ideal conditions. Rogers-Bennett and Catton 2021 found that the median body condition
index for both sexes in aggregate decreased 24% post MHW years. In addition, they found that “the decrease in female gonad index was dramatic with a 94% drop in 2016 and 2017. Histological assessments revealed that while females typically had more than 4,000 eggs per gram of body weight in the pre-2014 years, very few females had more than 1,000 eggs per gram after 2015”(Rogers-Bennett and Catton 2021).
What is being done to help combat this decline?
Several strategies have been proposed throughout the years with the intention of recovering the red abalone population to a sustainability. The Abalone Recovery Management Plan described several strategies that were implemented including gear restrictions, size limits, take limits, management zones, marine protected areas, seasonal closures, catch limits (both daily bag limits and annual limits) stock evaluation, regulation of actual catch limits, and site closures (CDFG 2005). These management strategies were implemented historically, until the closure of the red abalone recreational fishery in 2017.
A fisheries management plan, a plan that forms the primary basis for managing recreational and commercial marine fisheries, is in development for red abalone, and has been since 2014. In 2018, two different management strategies were proposed to the FGC and submitted for peer review, one by CDFW and one by stakeholder collaboration with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) representing the stakeholders. The FGC formally recommended the following:
(1) integrating aspects of both draft management strategies, based on a simulation modeling approach co-developed by CDFW and the TNC-led stakeholder team, including engagement with abalone divers and other stakeholders;
(2) revise FMP goals to allow for a de minimis fishery option;
(3) develop triggers for the de minimis fishery option in consultation with stakeholders; and
(4) DFW develop a proposed process and timeline which accounts for active public and MRC engagement.”
An integration process was developed to incorporate the two approaches into an FMP. The collaboration process produced a final report in 2020, the Summary of the Management Strategy Integration Process for the North Coast Recreational Red Abalone Fishery Management Plan (CDFW 2022b). The report outlined specific strategies for abalone management that “included exploring two to three fishing zones to monitor and manage the fishery” (Jackson et al. 2020).
The zones were to be managed with three statuses, closed, de minimus, and open, with closed indicating no harvest in the zone, a de minimus fishery would allow for harvest within the zone, and an open zone would indicate that fishing levels could rise above de minimus levels. The report noted that a closed fishery could still have a bio-fishery, where data and research would continue to take place to better understand the status of the resource (Jackson et al. 2020).
CDFW’s website indicates that with the submission of the Management Strategy Integration Process report, the draft and final Red Abalone Fisheries Management Plan and CEQA analysis would be submitted to the FGC with an anticipated date of Fall 2020 and a disclaimer that the date is subject to change. Based on available information on CDFW’s website, the draft and final plans have not yet been completed and submitted to the FGC (CDFW 2022b).
New strategies have been proposed during the development of the Red Abalone Fisheries Management Plan, including those in the Summary of the Management Strategy Integration Process for the North Coast Recreational Red Abalone Fishery Management Plan as described above (Jackson et al. 2020).
Researchers have also proposed management strategies, including adaptive management and an ecosystem wide approach. This includes the proposed development of climate ready action plans to increase ecosystem resilience, as they argue that MHW will increase in frequency in the future (Rogers-Bennett and Catton 2019). Others advocate for innovative strategies that include time series monitoring of biological and environmental parameters to inform decisions (McPherson et al. 2021).
Proposed actions have included re-establishing robust kelp forest areas, protecting abalone in recovery areas, and stocking of hatchery-reared juveniles. They also note that without the political will to make changes “we may continue to see the decline of red abalone survivors, exacerbating the challenges to reversing the downward population trajectory” highlighting the importance of political action in the recovery of ecosystems (Rogers-Bennett et al. 2021).
While the development of the Red Abalone Fisheries Management Plan has stalled, this does present an opportunity to review and incorporate several different approaches to management that are applicable to both the species as well as the ecosystem as a whole. As climate change increases and additional instances of MHW hit the California coast and change previously relatively stable ecosystems, it will be imperative to implement management strategies that incorporate an ecosystem wide approach and leave room for adaptive management where strategies are ineffective or could be implemented more efficiently.
The road ahead is likely long and will be hard fought, but if recovery is achieved, it will mean a return to spring abalone trips where we can teach new generations about the beauty of the water, the sway of the swell, and the taste of panko fried abalone hot out of the oil.
CDFG. 2005. Abalone Recovery and Management Plan. Abalone Recovery and Management Plan (ARMP) (ca.gov) Accessed Oct. 30, 2022.
CDFW. 2022a. Marine Life Management Act. Marine Life Management Act (ca.gov) Accessed Oct. 11, 2022.
CDFW. 2022b. Red Abalone Fishery Management Plan. Red Abalone Fishery Management Plan (ca.gov) Accessed Oct. 10, 2022.
Jackson, A., Berube, P., Taniguchi, I., Likins, J., Silva, J., Pope, E., and S. Mastrup. 2020. Summary of the Management Strategy Integration Process for the North Coast Recreational Red Abalone Fishery. Administrative Team Report to the California Fish and Game Commission. 115 pp.
McPherson, M. L., Finger, D. J. I., Houskeeper, H. F., Bell, T. W., Carr, M. H., Rogers-Bennett, L., et al. (2021). Large-scale shift in the structure of a kelp forest ecosystem co-occurs with an epizootic and marine heatwave. Commun. Biol. 4:298.
Rogers-Bennett, L. and Catton, C.A. 2019. Marine Heat Wave and Multiple Stressors Tip Bull Kelp Forest to Sea Urchin Barrens. Scientific Reports. Nature. Scientific Reports. 2019. Vol. 9 Art. 915050.
Rogers-Bennett, L., Klemt, R., Catton, C. A. 2021. Survivors of Climate Driven Abalone Mass Mortality Exhibit Declines in Health and Reproduction Following Kelp Forest Collapse. Frontiers in Marine Science. Vol 8, Art. 725134. 2021.
 ‘… level of catch that is anticipated to have little to no effect on the health or recovery of a fishery resource.’