California Dolphin: statewide California news

'A Miracle Didn't Happen'

Abalone season could be shuttered for another two years

When the California Fish and Game Commission took the unprecedented step last year of shutting down the North Coast's 2018 red abalone season, the idea was to give the last vestige of the state's once great fishery some time to bounce back. The decision came in the aftermath of what scientists call a "perfect storm" of ecological events that reverberated across the region, leaving formerly lush kelp forests — the primary source of food for the prized mollusk — reduced to virtual underwater wastelands overrun by marauding bands of scavenging purple urchins. Unfortunately, for the most part, not much has changed. "The sad news is a miracle didn't happen," Sonke Mastrup, a marine environmental manager with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, told commissioners at their last meeting in October. "That stock has collapsed. It's going to take a long time to recover." Now, with the precipitous drop in the abalone population continuing its steep decline, the commissioners are poised Dec. 12 to extend the closure for another two years with a new proposed sunset date in April of 2021. Complicating matters is what Mastrup referred to as the "math of the abalone," basically that the shellfish are slow growing and he estimates it will take a decade to bring a new stock up to legal size. Meanwhile, the abalone left behind are continuing to starve after reefs that once teemed with a variety of marine life from Sonoma County to Southern Humboldt were scoured bare by the spiky hordes, becoming what is known as urchin barren — in some cases devoid of even the calcified pink algae that normally blankets the rocks. The series of events that led to the ecosystem's unraveling happened in relatively short order, with the first signs coming back in August of 2011 with an outbreak of toxic algae off the Sonoma County coast. That was followed two years later by the decimation of the region's sea stars at the hands of a mysterious wasting disease. No longer held in check by one of its main predators, the purple urchin population surged in numbers amid an unprecedented warming of the North Coast's normally cool waters with the appearance of what's been called "the blob" — basically an oceanic heat wave that was soon succeeded by the "Godzilla" El Niño of 2015. These rapidly changing conditions ravaged the coast's bull kelp forests and, in turn, left…

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