SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2001


Up Shift Grind

- finding the gear for a sustainable fishery -

by Brigid Cumming

For millennia abalone flourished in the waters of Haida Gwaii, a commercial fishery started around 1910 with canning for "the Oriental market" at Jedway Bay. There is relatively little information about the abalone harvest from 1910 through to 1952 and it is typified as 'erratic' and 'low-level'. A record 30.6 tonnes canned in 1928 was not exceeded until 1964. More typically, fewer than 7 tonnes per year was processed at canneries in Jedway, and Bella Bella and Alert Bay on the central coast of BC.

Management became more of a concern in the 1950's with the advent of SCUBA gear which allowed for a more efficient fishery. Still, with the exception of a 57-tonne catch in 1964, annual catches were all less (sometimes far less) than 20 tonnes from 1952 through 1971. In "Northern Abalone, Haliotis kamtschatkana in British Columbia: Fisheries and Synopsis of Life History Information," a 1988 Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans document, Norm Sloan and Paul Breen speculate that "small enterprises developed in various areas at different times, and either went out of business quickly or shifted their attention to a different area."
Abalone stocks steadily declined during the mid-to-late 1970s, when peak levels of commercial extraction occurred. Standard Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) management techniques (catch quotas, issuing fewer licenses, shortened season) augmented the size restriction in effect since 1938, yet this all proved too little, too late. The fishery finally closed completely in 1990 with stocks at record lows. A decade later, stocks have not recovered and Northern Abalone was declared a threatened species in 1999.

DFO is familiar with cries of mismanagement. Certainly, it is easy to accuse them of not reacting quickly enough when the annual commercial abalone harvest jumped to 60 tonnes in 1972-1975. The catch surged again in 1976 to a then-record 274 tonnes, quickly eclipsed in 1977 (428 tonnes) and 1978 (433 tonnes). This compares alarmingly with all previous records. Catch allotments were sharply reduced, but again was it too little, too late? Possibly.

When the fishery peaked in the mid-70's, "nothing was known about stock size, population density and sustainable yield," according to "Gwaii Haanas-South Moresby ­ Review of Invertebrate Fishery Resources." The subsequent direction of the abalone fishery "highlights the difficulty in managing a rapidly developing fishery and later rationalizing management with limited biological information." Nobody anticipated the combination of pressures that would spark overwhelming levels of abalone harvesting. On the one hand, there were dwindling stocks and diminishing access to salmon and roe herring fisheries.

On the other, record abalone prices and improved scuba, compressor and refrigeration technologies suddenly made commercial abalone harvesting highly profitable. During 1978 the record 433 tonne harvest was taken in three months by 78 divers.

Stock surveys began in 1976, initially setting the sustainable harvest at 113.4 tonnes. This was steadily reduced to 47 tonnes by 1985. The unexploited nature of the fishery worked against it in the early 70's, with the abundance of large mature stocks making it difficult to find the critical 'recruitment overfishing' threshold. 'Recruits' is the fisheries term for harvestable abalone, which is defined by size. In 1908, the size limit was first set at 4" (101.6 mm). It was reduced to 3.5" (88.9 mm) in 1914. From 1938 through 1977 the critical dimension became width, not length; legal abalone had to be 2.5" (63.5 mm) wide, roughly corresponding to 3.5" (88.9 mm) long. In 1977 the size limit was changed back to 4" (101.6 mm) long. Size is dependent on environment as well as age, but generally, abalone were six years old or more when they could be harvested. Since abalone mature at three, this ensured an average of three spawning years before harvesting took place.

If more abalone are harvested than will grow to replace them the following year, the fishery is suffering from 'recruitment overfishing'. Under ideal circumstances, abalone would grow at a constant rate and predictable numbers would enter the fishery each year. This is not the case. Further confusing matters, when the fishery intensified in the 1970s quantities of previously unharvested older abalone were in the beds, along with an unknown number of first-year 'recruits'. Abalone are believed to live up to 15 years, but cannot be reliably aged. This further skewed the estimated proportion of 'recruits' to 'pre-recruits' and led to overestimates of sustainable harvest levels. It also took years of study to begin to assess the combined impacts of poaching, predation, and pronounced natural population swings.

In March, 1999, Fisheries and Oceans Canada generated, "A Strategy for Rebuilding Abalone Stocks in British Columbia." The strategy has five key elements ­ preventing poaching, restoring stock, switching to habitat or ecosystem-based management, carrying out stock assessments and exploring abalone aquaculture. Success for this project will hinge on public support and involvement. A resource as well as management credibility must be restored.

The Haida Gwaii Abalone Stewardship Project is a first step towards achieving these goals. It is one of three pilot projects established in 2000 with 50% funding supplied by Environment Canada's Habitat Stewardship Program and the other 50% provided as in-kind contributions from local partners. The Council of the Haida Nation's Haida Fisheries Program is the lead project proponent and has already carried out abalone habitat dive surveys providing a comprehensive assessment of 150 sites. Involving the community is the focus for 2001, with education and outreach activities joining stock survey and rebuilding work.

bull kelp photo - Lynn Lee

SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2001