SAN FRANCISCO — Abalone season opened in Northern California on Monday, but divers used to bringing home 100 of the meaty mollusks a year will now be limited to 24, thanks to poachers, overfishing and potential disease.
The state Fish and Game Commission also dropped the daily limit in December from four to three as a safeguard to help preserve one of the world’s richest remaining wild sources of red abalone, which cling to ocean reefs.
“Abalone in California is precious,” said Chamois Anderson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Fish and Game. “Only one species left in the entire family is at a level where we can even take it, and if we don’t manage it carefully, it will fall on the list of extinction with the others. If it did that, it would be a real sad day.”
Over the past decade, abalone take has increased 27 percent in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, the most popular abalone diving areas. Businesses there fear the lowered limits will have a drastic effect. Nearly 40,000 abalone licenses are issued annually for the estimated $20 million industry, which dozens of bed and breakfasts, restaurants and specialty shops depend on for survival.
“I think a lot of people felt like that was a little extreme,” Charlie Lorenz of Subsurface Progression dive shop in Fort Bragg said of the limit changes. “For a business that revolves around diving, it’s most likely going to have some impact, and it’s probably going to be negative to the overall economy.”
Diving was closed off to all of the state south of San Francisco in 1997 after a disease called withering foot syndrome decimated much of the black abalone population there. The bacteria that causes the disease was recently found on the North Coast in the red abalone population, but biologists say there is no indication it’s spreading.
The disease has forced thousands, who are no longer permitted to dive in the south, to come north. It also has driven black market abalone prices up to $80 apiece or $200 if smuggled to Japan, Andersen said. The mollusks, easily identified by their iridescent spiral shells, are eaten as a delicacy and used as an aphrodisiac.
A special abalone operations unit now uses high-tech equipment to track poachers who often dive with prohibited scuba gear. The team of game wardens sometimes spends months gathering enough evidence to bring down complex abalone rings. Penalties for poaching range up to $40,000 in fines and three years in prison.
“It’s right up there with the drug trade. These are criminals that are stealing a resource that you and I own,” Andersen said.