Mysterious Abalone Die-off

Today we made a day trip out to Fort Ross to go dive for abalone. When we were gearing up, a warden pulled up and told us “There have been reports of abalone being found on their backs South of here. You can still go diving, but be aware that we don’t know what’s causing this”. After he drove off, I noticed that I had forgotten to pack my booties and gloves. Brilliant!

South of Fort Ross

Though the water looked murky, there was little swell and the water was as calm as it gets in these areas, so we decided to go for it. As we were scouting our entry, a non-uniformed warden walked up and said “Hi, I’m a warden and so are those guys over there that are dressed as fishermen. We’re observing divers out here, and so we’re not in uniform. If you see any abalone that are on their backs or not attached to the rocks, can you get 4 or 5 of them? We want to send them off to the lab, as we don’t know what’s going on or why they’re being found in that state.”

We agreed and headed out, partly crawling and partly swimming over rocks exposed by the low tide. Luckily, there was little swell. Unluckily, it was overcast and the water was full of dead stuff that made the visibility extremely bad, where you couldn’t see anything further than a foot away at the surface.

Finding abalone was only possible because the spot that we went to was full of legal-sized snails. When we descended through the thick bull kelp, it was very dark at the bottom as the light was blocked by the crud in the water and the thick kelp canopy.

The first abalone I took was a barely legal which I bumped and then pulled off the rocks with my bare hands a few seconds later. I’ve done this before, but usually it’s not as easy. I’m guessing this one was in a weakened state. The next two I pried off with my bar.

I found two abalone that were correctly oriented, but not attached to any substrate, and put them in my float. Then we went in.

The four wardens who were in plain clothes had left, and two new wardens came up. We gave them the abalone and told them the depths at which they were found (10 and 15 feet, respectively). They put them in a zip lock with a card that has our contact information, and said they were sending the abalone off to a lab.

Hopefully whatever is killing off the abalone will abate soon, otherwise the implications of a widespread die-off might threaten this population. Perhaps today was the last day that the season will be open. That’s a sad, sad thought.