The Coastal Post - September, 1998

Abalone Farming Crisis On Tomales Bay

By Michael Stocker

On August 6th, the California Department of Fish and Game Commission (DFG) held a meeting at the Pt. Reyes Dance Palace. One of the more controversial items on the agenda involved conditional deep-water leases on Tomales Bay. Attending and presenting on the issue were a diverse representation of private and public interests; from our local herring industry to the Gulf of the Farallones Sanctuary, from recreational divers to the Golden Gate National Parks Service. The matter was brought about by the emergency use of an area off Hog Island this last winter by Abalone Acres, our local abalone farm.

A few years ago entrepreneur Luc Chamberlain decided to take a calculated risk in aquaculture on Tomales Bay with the farm. When he started Abalone Acres it was not too far out of an idea-abalone farming has been practiced in California since the mid-1960s. During the early years it was very experimental, but it was supported by an expanding market and a depleting supply of wild stock. The DFG was behind developing the industry on account of their mission of resource conservation-a supply of abalone from farms takes the pressure off commercial harvesting in the wild.

By the mid-1980s some farms had established themselves enough to become profitable, and by the early 1990s about a dozen farms were operating in California. Some farms cultivate their product in tanks on land, others in cages out in bays, still others use a hybrid of the two strategies. By the time Abalone Acres came on-line using the submerged cage approach, much of the groundwork had been laid; the only significant risk that Chamberlain had identified was whether Tomales Bay water could support his stock. This was until the identification of the sabellid worm.

Sometime during the 1980s a commercial farm down the coast was exploring the use of other species of abalone from South Africa in attempts to produce a more robust stock. Unbeknownst to them, these imported stock were infected with a minute feather-duster shaped organism that lodges onto the shells of certain gastropods-limpets, turban snails, whelks and, of course, abalone. The sabellid worm does not eat or otherwise infect the meat of the host-it just wreaks havoc on the shell, stunting growth of the host and leaving a mealy-looking shell. Due to the original source of the worms from farm seed stock, pretty much every abalone farm in California has some degree of infestation.

Fortunately, the sabellid worm doesn't seem to move around too easily-the known infestation in the wild seems to have required the presence of infected shells. Their spread also requires the presence of available hosts, so the muddy bottom of Abalone Acres is not a high-risk habitat for rapid spread of the worm. The real risk occurs when transporting the cages or placing them in areas where they can break loose and drift into more fertile habitats, and this is what occurred during the heavy rains of this winter.

Abalone need salt water to survive, so when Chamberlain started his farm, he was concerned about the fresh water content in Tomales Bay. Tomales is a salt water estuary fed by many fresh water sources, so there is always a degree of fresh water in it. Fortunately, this fresh water floats on top of the much denser salt water, so during most years the depth of the fresh water doesn't exceed 12 inches-even during the rainy season. Chamberlain's strategy for flood years was just to lower his cages a few more feet down into the water-below the level of the floating fresh water.

But this year, when El Nino weather was at cause for many problems in California, it also flooded the estuary with lots more fresh water than Abalone Acres was prepared to handle. Chamberlain moved his cages out into deeper water to prevent the abalone from perishing. This move raised the concerns of those interested in navigation issues, commercial deep water lease precedents, historic commercial uses of the Bay and California coastal ecology.

The urgency of the discussion at the DFG Commission meeting was fueled by the infestation potential of the sabellid worm. It was clear by the end of the meeting that many more opinions needed to be aired, and many more scientific findings needed to be presented before the wisest uses of Tomales Bay can be determined. Some of these future discussions will take place at upcoming DFG commission meetings; others will need to take place between the local interests. Hopefully these discussions can precede with cautious patience and flexibility, otherwise we may prematurely lose a farming practice that could be beneficial to both our local economy and our regional ego-system.

For dates, locations and agendas for upcoming DGF Commission meetings, you can write to Fish and Game Commission, POB 944209, Sacramento, CA 94244-2090.

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