Gearing Up for Abalone Season

rocky shore
Choppy water off the north coast. CDFW photo by L. Lopez

Every spring at the start of abalone season, thousands of people gear up and head out to their favorite spot on the north coast to rock-pick or dive for red abalone. Strong winds often accompany the spring months, which can make ocean waters rough. Between 1993 and 2012 more than 54 people lost their lives while trying to take abalone in a variety of circumstances including rough weather, and every year numerous near misses and rescues occur. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) would like to remind people to be safe and know their limits when engaging in the take of abalone.

“Check the marine weather forecast prior to coming to the coast and don’t be afraid to cancel your dive plans if you get here and find ocean conditions are too rough,” advises CDFW Wildlife Officer Don Powers. “Realize that you are not only placing your life at risk, but also the lives of several first-responders when you get into a situation that is life threatening. Please remember, abalone diving is supposed to be fun!”

Before You Get Into the Water

Red abalone from Timber Cove.  CDFW photo by A. Maguire

The Mendocino County Water Safety Coalition’s Facebook page provides a video with general information about seaside safety and specific safety tips for abalone divers. They advise divers to “survive to enjoy your catch” by making a “go/no go decision” you can live with.

A brochure produced by the Mendocino Land Trust also provides the following advice:

  • Check weather conditions: One way to do this is to call the National Weather Service Forecast Office at 707-443-7062, or visit their website.
  • Check conditions at the dive site: Be aware of bluff edges and cliffs. Recognize when surf conditions are hazardous and don’t dive if it is rough. Even on days that appear calm, look for rogue waves and never turn your back on the ocean.
  • Diving is a rigorous sport; make sure that you and your dive buddies are ready for it. Assess yourself and your diving partner: Are you rested? Are you sober? Can you trust your dive partner with your life?

The Right Gear

  • Check to make sure you have your abalone report card with you. Every abalone diver or rock-picker age 16 and older must also have a valid sport fishing license. You can keep your abalone report card in a watertight bag or jar along with a working pen and zip ties, string, or some other suitable material to securely affix tags to your abalone.

    The right gear: Legal abalone iron, 7 in. fixed gauge, current abalone report card, pen, zip ties (or other means of attachment). Hood recommended if putting head under water. Towel to dry hands before filling out card is useful. CDFW photo by L. Kashiwada
  • Seven-inch, fixed-caliper measuring gauge: All harvestable abalone must be 7 in. or larger when measured along the longest shell diameter. Undersized abalone must be returned to the rock surface from which they were removed. People sometimes carry larger (“trophy”) gauges, but everyone must have a 7-in. gauge also.
  • Abalone iron: This must be smooth with no sharp edges, less than 36 in. long, and at least ¾ in. wide and 1/16 in. thick.
  • Bring proper attire for diving or rock-picking, along with a towel and a change of clothes.
  • The water is cold. If you are putting your head under water, whether diving or rock-picking, wear a dive hood. When diving, wear a full quarter-inch wet suit (or thicker) that is not too tight or too loose. Your weight belt should weigh no more than 10 percent of your body weight and should not keep you from floating when resting at the surface. Hanging your weight belt on your dive tube will make resting easier. Drop your weight belt when in trouble.
  • Avoid diving in kelp. Reconsider diving if the water has low visibility and/or if there is a lot of surge.
  • Keep calm and think before acting if an emergency arises.
  • Call 911 for emergency assistance.

Red Abalone Regulations – A Few Changes

New for 2017:

  • Annual bag limit: 12 (reduced from 18).
  • Season: May 1 – June 30 and August 1 – October 31. Closed during July and from November through April.

Same as in 2016:

  • Daily bag/possession limit: Three (3).
  • Sonoma/Marin County bag limit: 9 (only 9 of the annual limit of 12 abalone may be taken in Sonoma and/or Marin counties.)
  • Area: Red abalone may only be taken north of San Francisco Bay. Fort Ross in Sonoma County is closed for the take of abalone.How to pop an abalone
  • Open hours: From 8 a.m. to one-half hour after sunset.
  • Tagging requirement: Each abalone report card includes 12 tags, one for each abalone that may be taken toward a cardholder’s annual bag limit. Only 9 of the 12 tags are valid south of Mendocino County. The date, time, and location of each abalone taken must be recorded on both the tag and the card. Tags must remain attached to the card until used, but they may be cut most of the way through as long as they remain attached to the report card. Tags that are completely cut loose are considered void/used. Every abalone must be tagged immediately after exiting the water (either onshore or onboard a motorized vessel), except for divers coming aboard non-motorized vessels (such as kayaks ) in which case, the tagging must occur immediately upon disembarking from the non-motorized vessel.
  • No scuba: Abalone may not be taken on scuba or possessed aboard any boat, kayak, or other floating device in which scuba gear is present.
  • No high grading: It is illegal to remove a legal-sized abalone and then discard or replace it for a bigger one. All detached, legal abalone must be kept and included in your bag limit.
  • No dry sacking: You cannot take abalone for another person’s bag limit.
  • Keep abalone intact: Abalone cannot be removed from their tagged shell until being prepared for immediate consumption.

And finally, here are some words of wisdom from Wildlife Officer Powers: “Remember these two simple rules that account for the vast majority of abalone violations: never take more than three abalone a day, and never possess more than three abalone.”  Abalone fishing regulations can be found in the annual Saltwater Sport Fishing regulations booklet.

post by Leslie Kashiwada, CDFW Scientific Aid