Coveting abalone from all angles.


Mar 11, 2001
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Coveting abalone from all angles

Divers crazy about quarry, for reasons right and wrong

Paul McHugh, San Francisco Chronicle Outdoors Writer    

May 23, 2002

The rules of the game are very specific: Near Salt Point, Robert Lombardi of Ashland, Ore., explains to warden Bob Aldrich why he didn't record his catch immediately upon exiting the water, while warden Jennifer Ikemoto measures an abalone. Chronicle photo by John O'Hara

Salt Point, Sonoma County -- Veteran game warden Bob Aldrich, clad in camouflage, crept out onto a bluff near Timber Cove. Aldrich adjusted a tripod-mounted spotting scope. He studied three scuba divers entering the ocean from an inflatable boat.

"People don't realize how well we can see what they do from a distance," Aldrich said. "Typically, every group I set up on, I'll spot some sort of violation."

Aldrich's targeted quarry, last Saturday, ranged from serious abalone poachers to sport divers violating new legal harvest rules.

"We sold 40,000 abalone permits last year," Aldrich said. "On Memorial Day weekend, with minus tides coming, there may be as many as 10,000 divers out. We'll likely write a lot of tickets. Abalone are probably our most abused resource on this coast."

Red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) are the last species available for any sort of harvest in California. Only a few decades ago, sport and commercial divers could take reds and four other species down as far as the Mexican border.

Now, only sport take of red "abs" is allowed, and that just north of the Golden Gate. The state Fish and Game Commission recently tightened the annual sport bag limit from 100 to 24, and the daily bag from four to three abalone. Also, rules now require strict and timely record-keeping, on an abalone punch card, as soon as skin divers emerge from the water.

The goal of the state's abalone management is to ensure our reds don't go the way of black, green, pink, white and threaded abalone -- populations that were ravaged by over-harvest and disease. Currently, marine biologist Konstantine Karpov says, it appears as if a hefty population of adult red abalone remains off the North Coast.

However, biologists cannot find very many young. The last good recruitment period was 1982/1983. Should adult population density drop too low from over- harvest, the next time conditions are good for spawning it simply won't succeed. The mollusks won't be sited close enough to make it work. Then, red abalone numbers could swiftly crash.

During the same afternoon of warden Aldrich's patrol, a team of a dozen recreational skin divers joyously clambered from the sea at a nearby cove. They were midway through a three-day outing engineered by the Adventure Sports shop in Santa Cruz. This shop mounts seven dive excursions to Stillwater Cove Ranch each abalone season.

"I love taking people on marine adventures," said Dennis Judson, who founded his shop 25 years ago. "It brings them out, makes them real. The only way you can win in the sea is to be truthful with it. Once people get clear with the ocean, they can grow more clear with each other."

The rite of passage seemed to work for Blaze Young, 14, and his father, Christopher Young, of Davenport. The youth was proud of scoring his day's limit of three abs in just four dives -- using his hands instead of an ab iron (pry bar) -- and outlasting Judson on one 40-foot, breathhold dive. The elder Young confided that an Adventure Sports group dive was one of the few organized social activities in which he liked to participate.

Back at the Stillwater Cove Ranch barn (converted by the owner into a large dorm and kitchen), the group prepared to fully appreciate their harvest. Eighteen abs were sliced, tenderized and served in a mouthwatering feast. Abalone steaks were presented barbecued, sauteed with mushrooms and onions, in a Grand Marnier sauce with seedless grapes, as stroganoff and in stuffed abalone rolls.

"Being able to collect my food from the sea keeps me motived in diving," said Craig Jenson of Half Moon Bay. "This ab was in the ocean this morning. It's on my plate now. That's impossible for a restaurant to do."

That doesn't mean restaurants don't try. Seafood bistros are regularly implicated in ab poaching. By law, they're only supposed to serve imported abalone, or small ab steaks grown by aquaculture farms. But the state Department of Fish and Game estimates as many as 250,000 wild abs were snatched illegally or without appropriate documentation last year. That's more than a third of California's estimated legal count of 730,000 abalone in 2001.

Poaching methods are as sneaky as human ingenuity can devise. Abalone are only supposed to be harvested by sport skin divers, during daylight hours. However, divers in scuba gear will submerge at night, use light sticks to illuminate their haul, then make surreptitious drops to passing automobiles or offshore boats. One enterprising thief with a double tank array was even found to be using one of his tanks -- with a removable bottom plate -- as a secret ab stash.

To cope with the problem, wardens with the California Department of Fish and Game strive to be equally inventive. A Special Operations Unit may spend months carefully assembling a case that nabs all links in a criminal chain: the divers, the transporters and shady restaurateurs. New laws give judges the chance to smite commercial miscreants with $40,000 fines and lifetime revocation of fishing licenses, as well as confiscation of boats, cars or other tools used in the crime.

On Saturday, Aldrich met with state park ranger Tom Walton from Fort Ross to plan collaborative enforcement during Memorial Day weekend. Two of their methods will include night use of infrared scopes mounted on video cameras, and officers swimming by day, wearing wetsuits as recreational divers do, but enjoying that extra ability to flash a badge.

It's not just determined commercial poachers who pose a threat to the resource. Recreational divers are often caught exceeding bag limits, taking undersized abs (they're supposed to be seven inches across) or filling bags for less-skilled divers.

Most often, rec divers don't properly or promptly mark their ab tags, try to buy more than one per person, or fail to turn them in at season's end. When warden Aldrich makes this latter sort of pinch, he says, he wants divers to understand that these modern reporting rules are supposed to help the department manage the abalone, and ensure they're around to harvest in the future.

If it works, then divers in decades to come will find the sort of experience that Moira Hutchins-Fuhr rhapsodizes about.

"People talk of heaven being up in the sky," she said. "For me, bliss is down below, in the sea. Some of it is the silence, some of it is the camaraderie. But mostly it's the idea that you can sink down, and discover the preciousness of a breath, or the strength and power in your own body. And, of course, your ability to take food straight from the wild. Sadly, most people in our society have gotten very far away from that. They even fail to see it as valuable."


-- SKILLS: Become a good swimmer, adept at breathhold swimming in pools. Certification as a scuba diver adds valuable open water experience. Finally, become adept at ocean diving without tanks. Find shops under "Divers" in the Yellow Pages. The Adventure Sports shop is at (831) 458-3648, or http://www.asudoit. com. .

-- GEAR: Thick wetsuit, weightbelt, mask, snorkel, flippers, float tube, ab iron, abalone-measuring device, California ocean-only fishing license ($17.85 for a state resident) and abalone report card ($12.60 for resident). Only one card per person per year. .

-- RULES: The 2002 split-season for red abalone runs April 1-June 30, then August 1-November 30. Area of legal take is from San Francisco Bay to Oregon border, only. Time of take: from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. Daily bag limit: three. Yearly limit: 24. Shells must be at least seven inches in length; abalone must be kept in shell during transport. Fill abalone report card promptly upon leaving the water; it must be filed with Department of Fish and Game within 30 days of the close of the season. .

-- INFO: Contact CDFG marine division at (831) 649-2801 or A draft abalone management plan will be introduced by early summer; informal public hearings will follow. Anyone with information on poaching incidents is encouraged to call, toll-free, the "CAL-TIP" hot line at 1-888-334-2258.

E-mail Paul McHugh

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