No Shell Games on San Clemente Island
By Bill Franklin, Public Affairs
long the shoreline of San Clemente Island, the Navy is striving to protect an endangered shellfish that clings to life in wave-washed rocky crevices.
The Navy signed an Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan (INRMP) amendment June 9, 2011, to help protect and save the black abalone while also preserving invaluable training areas at SCI the Navy uses to ready seaborne combat forces to defend the nation.
Once plentiful along the West Coast, the black abalone is now an endangered species and scientists fear it could face extinction.
The black abalone has long been under attack by poachers and commercial and recreational fishermen, but a cruel disease dubbed “Withering Syndrome” has decimated its population to 5 percent of its historic high.
“Although a comprehensive estimate of the total number of black abalone has not been determined in Southern California, a long-term survey of select locations indicated a pre-disease average population of 30 individuals per 10 square foot area and after the disease had struck, less than one, and more often than not, zero abalone were found in the same areas,” said Fisheries Biologist, Melissa J. Neuman, with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
This disease prevents an abalone from digesting nutrients. As a result, it literally withers and dies from lack of nourishment or its foot atrophies and the abalone falls off the rock and becomes easy prey for enemies such as the sea otter.
“The abalone utilizes its foot to move between cracks and crevices to feed and is not able to survive if it can’t hold onto the rock,” said Jacqueline D. Rice, California-based natural resources program manager for Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet.
The challenge facing the Navy has been how to manage the black abalone and support warfare training on San Clemente Island.
The answer lies in managing the population by implementing an INRMP to help protect the species, said Jessica J. Bredvik, a marine biologist with Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest.
According to the Endangered Species Act, the Secretary of Interior is not allowed to designate DoD land as critical habitat where an INRMP is in place. This is only if the Secretary determines that the INRMP provides a benefit to the species where critical habitat is proposed for designation.
The plan involves establishing a partnership with each regulator including: the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game, which also signed off on the INRMP, Bredvik added.
In 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service designated the black abalone as endangered.
In anticipation of and in response to this designation under the Endangered Species Act, Bredvik said, “In 2008 and 2011 the Navy spent approximately $120,000 to conduct field surveys and identify habitat for black abalone along the SCI shoreline.”
“Navy biologists counted more than 30 black abalone in a few remote survey areas of the rocky intertidal habitat around SCI. This number is used to make an educated guess that over 200 abalone likely exists along the coastal area of SCI,” said Rice.
“Surveys currently in progress this year, estimated at $220,000, demonstrate the Navy’s commitment to protect the black abalone,” said Bredvik.
San Clemente and San Nicolas Island, both administered by the Navy, are among the eight Channel Islands, a chain stretching along the coast of Southern California in the Santa Barbara Channel.
“The Channel Islands are the last strongholds for the abalone species because they are and have been less accessible for harvesting, are further off-shore than other existing habitat, and less susceptible to the affects of pollution,” said Bredvik.
According to new regulations issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, approximately 22 miles have been designated critical habitat along the California shoreline. NOAA spared San Clemente and San Nicolas islands from designation as critical habitat.
“This is based on determinations that the U.S. Navy’s revised INRMPsfor these areas provide benefits to black abalone,” said Bredvik.
Rice said, “The fact that we received an exclusion from critical habitat is the real success story.”
Had the islands been designated as critical habitat it would have changed how the Navy could train at SCI or SNI,” Rice added.
The 2011 INRMP amendment describes what the Navy will do to protect the black abalone.
This amendment requires the Navy to annually manage black abalone, which could include, counting the number of abalone near the shoreline, educate island personnel to prevent poaching and continue enforcement of safety zone closures that prohibit or limit public access to species habitat at SCI. The Navy will also continue data collection efforts with state and federal agencies to develop a management plan using adaptive strategies that help the species survive.
“Adaptive management is the ability to change our management strategies as we continue to collect data and adjust our approach to best manage the species,” said Bredvik.
The other key to success in protecting the black abalone is found in the collaboration between the regulatory agencies and the Navy.
Bredvik said, “We have always had an open-door policy with the regulators and work closely with them in the development and continued management of the program.”
“It was important that we talked and worked together to coordinate efforts that help the black abalone at SCI. We were able to work with the Navy in drafting an INRMP amendment that resulted in positive steps to manage and protect the black abalone and its habitat,” said Neuman.
“I think it’s a little too soon to say whether the INRMP, in effect less than a year, is the best recovery tool over a Critical Habitat designation,” said Neuman.
“But,” she added, “whatever the Navy can do at SCI, using its resources and staff to train and inform others, stressing that black abalone are an endangered species and it’s illegal to poach them, could go much further in protecting the species than a NMFS critical habitat designation at SCI.”
“We don’t have it all figured out for black abalone. Currently NMFS is engaged in a recovery planning process that’s required under the Endangered Species Act; it’s a five-year process and will serve as a guide for recovering the species. We hope the Navy will be an integral part of developing that plan,” said Neuman.
“We’re doing the best we can to be good stewards and support the recovery of this species. Our other role is to ensure that warfighters continue to train as they need to at SCI and SNI. These roles are not mutually exclusive,” said Rice.