Abalone hunters and other recreational divers forced to stand by idly for years as tiny purple urchins overran the ocean floor off the North Coast are scheduled to converge en masse over Memorial Day weekend to try their hand at resetting nature.
At least 100 participants are expected to gather at Ocean Cove on the Sonoma Coast for a two-day blitz aimed at clearing as many of the dollar-sized urchins from the cove as possible. They hope it will give some of the region’s ravaged bull kelp and the beleaguered red abalone that feed on it a fighting chance at recovery.
The event is one of several in the works by the Watermen’s Alliance, a coalition of spearfishing clubs claiming more than 1,000 members throughout California. The campaign, involving public and private partners, aims to try to restore the kelp forest that once dominated offshore waters in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
Sport-fishing groups also have raised tens of thousands of dollars to put commercial red urchin divers to work at several coastal locations, in hopes they can coax the bull kelp into re-establishing a fraction of its former territory.
The scale of the problem is vast.
“We’re seeing swarms of purple urchins absolutely eating anything alive,” said Jon Holcomb, a commercial urchin diver from Fort Bragg who has worked closely with state the Fish and Wildlife Department and the Watermen’s Alliance on the issue. “Urchins, abalone, anything. It’s dramatic.”
Solutions are in short supply and the best method of attack remains in dispute amid regulatory restrictions and concern that too much human interference in the ocean could have adverse environmental effects.
“The science is at best uncertain on this approach,” Valerie Termini, executive director of the Fish and Game Commission, told her members during a meeting last month. “It’s sort of, ‘We’re trying something.’”
For recreational divers, the opportunity to cull the voracious purple critters is an antidote to years of frustration experienced while watching them proliferate, decimating miles of coastal kelp beds that once harbored California’s last productive abalone fishery, as well as providing habitat for other marine wildlife.
Many would just as soon smash the urchins to bits where they lie, though officials and scientists warn that would violate state wildlife code and risk accidental spawning through the release of reproductive material that would only boost the population.
State officials and scientist have urged a more cautious, restrained approach, one that critics say amounts to “dragging their feet.” Divers watching the abalone shrink in their shells and die of starvation have struggled to restrain themselves, meanwhile. This year, they have been forced to quit hunting for abalone altogether, the popular season canceled by state officials due to the imperiled status of the fishery.
Healthy bull kelp forests are seen as a key factor in the recovery, and this is the time of year those forests should be expanding their reach in near-shore waters where abalone normally thrive.
“The kelp needs to sprout every two years, at a minimum,” said Josh Russo, Watermen’s Alliance president. “If the seeds don’t land and create a viable plant, after two years, it dies. So now is really kind of a crunch time. If it’s not now, it’s never.”