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— Most everyone who hears about Don Gilbert's proposal to replenish San Diego's coastal waters with abalone is captivated by the idea. Even officials for the California Department of Fish and Game and the City of San Diego agree that increasing the state's depleted abalone supply would be beneficial.

After spending 22 years wading through bureaucratic red tape, rule changes, requests for more paperwork, and government skepticism, Gilbert is close to making his repopulation project a reality. On April 25, the boat-dwelling, self-taught marine biologist received the final okay he needs from the state to release abalone larvae into the Pacific Ocean near Point Loma.

The tide seems to have turned, but Gilbert is caught in yet another tangle of regulations. The entrepreneur must now persuade city officials to rent him part of the ocean floor. Such a lease would be the first of its kind, said Will Griffith, director of San Diego's real-estate assets department, which oversees tidelands extending three miles from shore. The city's environmental concerns and queries for financial data could delay or block the state-approved seeding program at a time when abalone are struggling to survive.

White abalone are likely to be added to the federal government's endangered-species list next year, said Peter Haaker, an abalone specialist for the California Department of Fish and Game. Other varieties -- red, pink, green, and black -- have also declined as the result of overfishing and disease, said Haaker, who has joined efforts to place white abalone on the state's endangered-species list. In May 1997, California outlawed commercial harvesting and sports-diving of abalone south of San Francisco. Northward, a ban on commercial harvesting has been in place since 1945. Sports divers in Northern California may still collect abalone provided they don't use air tanks, thus forcing reliance on snorkels and lung power.

To get their supply, restaurants and fish markets depend on California's aquaculture farms, which raise abalone, and on imported shellfish from Australia, Mexico, and elsewhere. With wholesale prices at $40 a pound and retail prices as high as $80, abalone -- considered a delicacy by many -- is an expensive menu item.

Gilbert, 54, once made a lucrative living as a professional abalone diver based in San Diego. While growing up in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, he rarely went to the beach but was fascinated by rivers and creeks. He became obsessed with the ocean, Gilbert said, during the late 1960s, while serving in the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton. He learned to scuba dive, studied marine biology, and began collecting abalone during the early 1970s. From four days of work, he took home $2200 after expenses. By the late 1970s, Gilbert was finding two or three abalone in spots where he used to gather two or three dozen. "I was really troubled on seeing the demise," he recalled. "I requested a moratorium on white abalone back in 1983." Gilbert kept diving through 1984 to supply his research and to finance his plans to start an abalone farm, called Maritech Ocean Ranching. "I thought mariculture would be the wave of the future."

In April, to the astonishment of many, the California Department of Fish and Game gave Gilbert a permit to release abalone larvae into the ocean. It is the only such "stocking" permit in the state, said Bob Hulbrock, the agency's aquaculture coordinator. Gilbert also has a "collecting" permit -- one of five -- that allows him to catch abalone for breeding. He fertilizes eggs in the state-licensed laboratory aboard his boat, the Maritech, docked in a small marina on the harbor side of Point Loma. Gilbert bought the 1961-vintage, 48-foot-long Navy motor launch in 1979 for $15,000. State inspectors recently certified Gilbert's lab to be free of sabellid worms, a parasite traced to South African abalone imported in the mid-1980s. By the mid-1990s the worms had contaminated abalone raised on nearly all of California's 18 aquaculture farms, which had traded infested stock. Meanwhile, a bacterial infection called "withering foot syndrome" decimated black abalone in the wild and infected other varieties. The malady first appeared in the mid-1980s in shellfish near the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara and spread from there.

What distinguishes Gilbert's operation from other licensed abalone farms dotting the coast, Hulbrock said, is that it would be the state's only "open-ocean ranch." The millions of larvae Gilbert plans to set free near Point Loma between the Ocean Beach pier and Cabrillo National Monument would fend for themselves at depths ranging from 18 to 80 feet. In contrast, businesses such as the Abalone Farm in Cayucos, north of Morro Bay; Abalone International in Crescent City, near the Oregon border; the Cultured Abalone in Santa Barbara; Monterey Abalone Co.; and U.S. Abalone in Davenport, north of Santa Cruz, confine the shellfish they raise in underwater cages or tanks on land.

"I think it's unlikely Mr. Gilbert will be successful," Hulbrock said, "but that's not a reason to block his plans. Who knows? He might surprise us." At the Fish and Game Commission's urging, the department negotiated an agreement giving Gilbert special harvesting rights after he shows a fiftyfold increase in abalone. "It's an unusual project," Hulbrock said. "The commission wanted to provide the opportunity for Mr. Gilbert to demonstrate his techniques. Abalone are in bad shape. The commissioners were willing to push the envelope."

Although the concept of "open-ocean ranching" may sound far-fetched, said Mia Tegner, a kelp forest ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, the method has been tested since the 1980s in scientific "enhancement" programs in Australia, Mexico, and New Zealand. Hand-planting of larger baby abalone has been tried, most notably in Japan, Tegner said, but it is labor intensive and expensive. "The probability of an individual larva surviving is very, very small. But because they are so cheap to produce, the hope is a very small survival rate of large numbers of larvae outplanted would still have a significant impact at a relatively low cost," Tegner said. "To date this appealing approach has had poor success in the hands of everyone who has published on it." Despite her doubts about the method, Tegner said, "What Don Gilbert proposes can't hurt. If he were successful, that would be wonderful. His heart is in the right place."

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