The last abalone

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This blog was originally posted on Medium here

“It’s a level of abundance that the state will probably never see again.”

That’s the final line from a 2018 San Francisco Chronicle article about the decline of abalone populations in California. Currently, the long-popular recreational dive fishery for red abalone north of San Francisco is and will remain closed until at least 2021. The immediate causes were the combined effects of the 2014 – 2016 El Niño plus warming ocean temperatures plus an explosion of purple sea urchins, which decimated the bull kelp, the abalone’s main source of food.

In other words, our oceans are changing at a rapid clip. Our collective memory is also short. The Chronicle story reminds us that abalone were once much more than a recreational fishery in Northern California noting, “abalone were once so abundant San Franciscans plucked them from tide pools and cooked them on the beach.” Further, different species of abalone were once harvested commercially and recreationally across the entire California coast.

To be up front, this isn’t a post about shifting baselines, though that’s part of it. Or about changing ocean conditions, though that is part of it. Nor is it about the human connection to the sea via generations of abalone divers, though that too is part of it. Rather I am reflecting on how all these lines come together to teach about what we are willing to risk, both in terms of the vibrancy of ecosystems and ourselves as part of it, and the role of science in helping to ameliorate that risk. It is also a post about the limitations of science, particularly its inability to do that without the engagement of the community.

In other words, for science to serve society, it requires your participation – your intellectual curiosity, your willingness to engage in good faith, and your ideas. Let me explain: Years ago I was part of a team at California Ocean Science Trust to coordinate a scientific peer review of the methods the state used to measure red abalone abundance and set catch limits for the Northern California recreational fishery.  

Stewarding a scientific process in the public realm

The request had come to us via the California Ocean Protection Council via the California Fish and Game Commission, who ultimately decides on catch, via recreational divers who had expressed concerns about the survey methods to estimate abalone density run by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Everyone wanted to get it right. So at Ocean Science Trust we designed a process for the review based on four tenets: Inclusion, transparency, communication, and rigor.

We convened a team of independent scientists. We built in opportunities for those scientists to engage with stakeholders, fishery managers, and government scientists. Through such efforts, we shaped the scope of the peer review, and we were better able to flesh out exactly how science was used in the abalone fishery management plan to trigger certain decisions. You can read the executive summary and final report here.

The process to us was important. It took months to complete, but that’s the nature of those four aforementioned tenets. As a scientist working with policy and management, it’s not enough to provide facts or be right, you must engage with the community, build common understanding of those facts, then chart a way forward together.

And yet we failed

Yet judging by the current state of abalone in the state… we failed. Now I don’t mean to overstate the influence of our one project. It was only a peer review. It was only on red abalone north of San Francisco. Where we’re at reflects a larger confluence of past decisions and environmental conditions. But when many of us, myself included, talk about the need to better link science and decisions we have to ask ourselves to what end? It sounds great. But it’s not enough, especially in this rapidly changing world.

One of the things I worry about most in doing the work of bringing scientists, decision-makers, stakeholders, and more together is that the rate of climate exacerbated change will outpace us. In some cases it already has. Outpace the time it takes to do the science. Outpace the decision process to consider the science. Outpace our ability to engage with the community on the science and in making the best decisions. And when systems or species start to collapse the first thing that often goes out the door is good and fair process. That is how we lose ourselves in this, precisely at the moment we need each other most.

We need each other

Yes, science can help. I still believe passionately in the work of bringing science and society closer together. But I realize that’s not enough. A more inclusive, proactive, engaged science can help. Science that scientists, decision-makers, and communities all shape and use. Science as a public collective, that we all feel ownership of, feel protective of even as the world changes around us.