SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2001


Tonnes O' Bucks

by Lynn Lee


For over 7,000 years, coastal First Nations people along the British Columbia coastline harvested abalone for food, decoration and currency for trade. Harvesting was by hand picking in the intertidal at low tides and by using a two-pronged spear able to reach down 6 feet below the surface. Diving was not known as a harvest method and thus, only the intertidal and a very small portion of the upper subtidal abalone population was exploited by traditional First Nations fisheries. In the early days, Haida people traveling to the Skeena and the Nass Rivers had also sold dried abalone to the Chinese.

For perhaps 100 years, but certainly since the advent of SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) in the 1950s, a small recreational fishery for abalone has existed. Prior to the abalone harvesting closure in 1990, most areas of the B. C. coast were open to a daily bag limit of 12 abalone over 100mm shell length.

Around 1910, the first recorded commercial abalone fisheries in BC took place around Haida Gwaii, with canning stations at Jedway Bay and Rose Harbour, and drying stations at Murchison Island. At the same time, canning activities were also reported in Bella Bella. By 1913, all but the Jedway Bay cannery was closed, with Jedway continuing sometime past 1926. Between 1913 and 1952, little is known about the fishery, although harvest levels were suspected to be quite low, ranging from 6.4 tonnes in 1922 to 30.6 tonnes in 1928.

With the advent of SCUBA in the early 1950s, commercial landings of abalone became more consistent. Between 1952 and 1971, an average of 7.71 tonnes of abalone was harvested every year, with a maximum landing of ~58 tonnes in 1964. During this period, the product was sold on the domestic market, fresh to restaurants and seafood stores, bringing prices between $0.15 per kg in 1954 and $0.92 per kg in 1970. In the 1950s, much of the abalone harvest occurred on the south coast. In the 60s and early 70s, about half the harvest came from each of the north and south coasts.

About thirty years ago, the large-scale commercial harvest of abalone began. Abalone was one of many "developing fishery" species being harvested by the BC diving fleet and fishermen were testing the waters for monetarily valuable species. Prior to 1976, the harvest was open to anyone who had a personal fishing license and, after 1968, an unlimited "C" license (granted to anyone having a vessel with approved fish-holding space). The fishery was regulated with only a minimum size limit, the philosophy being that this limit was sufficient to sustain the abalone population.

Precipitated by numerous factors including restricted access to salmon and roe herring fisheries (causing fishermen to look for new fishing opportunities), unrestricted access into abalone and other "developing" fisheries (including geoducks, red urchins and prawns), developing technology moving from day-boats to freezer-boats (allowing fishermen to fish more remote areas for longer periods of time) and increased demand and prices from Japan (between 1972 and 1976, the landed value increased 3-fold to $3.14 per kg), abalone landings reached a record high of 274 tonnes in 1976. In less than a year, the commercial harvest took more than the 4 previous years combined (1972 to 1975) and possibly more than the 62 years before that (1910 to 1971).

In 1976, fishery managers realized that minimum size limits were not enough. Abalone was in demand and the price on was rising rapidly. Suddenly, abalone was a valuable commodity. Over the next 2 years, fisheries management attempted to control abalone harvest levels to no avail. Despite the introduction of limited licensing, limited number of divers, reduction in fishing season, minimum size limits, changes in harvesting procedures and requirements for activity log books, landings increased unabated. The 1977 landings totaled 428 tonnes coastwide, over 8 months of fishing from 29 licenses, with almost all the catch coming out of North Coast waters. In fact, since 1976, consistently over 75% of the landings occurred from the North Coast and much of that was harvested from Area 1 (north Graham Island) and Area 2E (east Moresby Island) around Haida Gwaii.

Attempting to reduce the catch to ~255 tonnes in 1978, DFO opened the fishery to 27 licenses for only 3 months ­ resulting in a total catch of 433 tonnes! Further management action was taken, limiting the fishery to a total overall quota and dividing the total quota equally among all 26 license holders, resulting in Canada's first Individual Vessel Quota (IVQ) management system. To ease the fisheries into this new regime, the 1979 season was divided into 2 phases: 113 tonnes was taken as an open fishery ­ which lasted 18 days ­ and the remaining 113 tonnes, equally divided into IVQs, lasted almost 7 months. The pressure for each individual fisherman to get as much as possible as fast as possible was relieved.

The pressure on the BC abalone population, however, was not relieved. Fishery independent stock assessment of the abalone population was initiated after the distressing record harvest in 1976. Prior to 1976, only anecdotal information was available. Rough estimates made in the early 1980s indicated that the density of abalone decreased by 60 to 90% in harvested areas of the North Coast between 1976 and 1978. Later estimates indicated an 80% overall decrease in density along east Moresby Island between 1978 and 1984. Although patchy distribution of abalone make the stocks difficult to assess, it was clear that a precipitous decline in population had occurred since the start of assessment in 1976. The serial depletion of B. C. northern abalone stocks was underway.

After 1979, quotas continued to be reduced year after year as prices continued to increase. By 1987, the overall quota for the fishery was set at 47 tonnes and the price had reached over $18 per kg. In December 1990, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) perceived a problem. Under threat of abalone population collapse, DFO closed commercial, recreational and First Nations fisheries for northern abalone, in hopes that the population would naturally rebuild.
Over the short, sad course of the commercial fishery, more than 750 tonnes of northern abalone were taken around Haida Gwaii, including 72 tonnes from Cumshewa Inlet over one year alone.

Today, the legal harvest of northern abalone remains closed along the British Columbia coast. Despite 10 years of fishery closure, continuing stock assessment by DFO shows no apparent increase in the abalone population around Haida Gwaii. Decreasing abalone densities and declining numbers of monitoring sites showing abalone presence suggest that serial depletion of larger formerly legal-sized abalone continues today. Clouded by an illegal harvest of abalone whose history is as long as the closure and whose breadth has been estimated at up to 5 times the former legal quota, solid explanations for the continued population decline remain elusive. Possibilities? ­ Overharvesting, poor or periodic survival of juveniles, natural predation, environmental factors affecting survival of one or many life stages, poaching and lack of enforcement, and reduced kelp bed areas since elimination of sea otters.

In time, the answers may become clear ­ In the meantime, restoration of a healthy marine environment and community stewardship of remaining abalone populations remains key to their survival. ·



SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2001