continued Gilbert expects to surpass previous results by unloading greater quantities of larvae more frequently. "They're not putting out enough larvae," he declared. "They do one experiment and wait for a year before getting data. We're set up to do the same thing two or three times a week in much, much larger volumes." David Leighton, abalone-production manager for Carlsbad Aquafarm Inc., is enthusiastic about repopulation efforts based on his own experience and his more optimistic interpretation of the overseas experiments. Leighton, who earned his doctorate in marine biology from Scripps, tried larvae and handplanting juveniles near La Jolla during the 1970s and 1980s. "In my follow-ups with larvae, I could never be sure the little abalone were mine." Consequently, Leighton would like to track larvae that he could more easily identify. Eight years ago he submitted a scientific proposal to release a hybrid he has cultivated from green and red abalone. "I've never gotten much support from the Department of Fish and Game, so I share some of Don's frustrations dealing with regulators," said Leighton, who still awaits a response. "What Don wants to do needs to be done, but no one has broken ground on it."
In 1997, California deputy attorney general Randall Christison helped the Fish and Game Commission draft a rule change aimed at advancing Gilbert's plans. Before, state law required that farm-raised abalone poured in the sea be tagged or marked, an impossibility for microscopic larvae. "The department [of fish and game] was not at all thrilled about it, and there were some real screams at public meetings," Christison recalled, referring to objections against introducing anything into the environment. "If anything, Don Gilbert is certainly tenacious. I think there are equal doses of skepticism and excitement about his chances for success." The commercial aspect of Gilbert's proposal and the preferential harvesting rights granted him by the state may pose another barrier. "To be perfectly honest, if it were Scripps, it would be easier," Griffith said, distinguishing between nonprofit scientific "enhancement" programs such as Leighton's and for-profit aquaculture farms. "Mr. Gilbert isn't doing this for just altruistic reasons. He's got to make some money. Because this is a business venture, it raises another policy issue," Griffith said, noting the city typically seeks competitive bids before negotiating contracts.
In dealing with regulators, Gilbert insists on special harvesting terms and a low-rental rate for the sea bottom. That would help him recoup more than $200,000 in expenses thus far and cover future costs of population surveys required by the state. Turning a profit is uncertain despite the high price of abalone. Assuming Gilbert dramatically boosts abalone stock, he could, under his agreement with the Department of Fish and Game, collect the pink and green species measuring 4.5 inches, or 1.5 inches smaller than the former legal limit. It would take about four years for surviving larvae to reach that size. "A fiftyfold increase is a very hard measure to meet," Hulbrock said. "It would show there's no doubt that enhancement would be the result of Mr. Gilbert's efforts, and it could lead to restoration of abalone, not just in California but around the world. If he could increase the population just tenfold, we feel that would be a great enhancement."
Griffith and Gilbert have been at odds for many months. Griffith wants assurances of the project's economic viability, including an independent feasibility report, business plan, cash-flow analysis, financial statements from Gilbert, and letters of commitment for financing. Without knowing the cost of renting eight square miles of ocean floor from the city, Gilbert counters, it's difficult to make absolute projections over five years. Without having a lease or knowing its terms, he says, investors can't evaluate the enterprise's prospects. "Cash flow? I've had a negative cash flow for two decades," Gilbert said. "I've invested my life into this."
Marie Wolf, a financial planner for Scott, Rowe & Associates in Scripps Ranch, said she decided to invest in Gilbert's business after learning about it from one of her clients in 1998. Wolf, who makes a living advising people about their investments, acknowledges the outlook for earning money from Maritech Ocean Ranching is speculative. Nonetheless, she would like to contribute to reviving abalone in California.
"Here's someone trying to do something good for the environment, and I want to be a part of it," Wolf said. "I can't believe the runaround Don is getting from the city."
Last summer Gilbert captured the interest of City Councilman Byron Wear, a former lifeguard. After touring Maritech Ocean Ranching's laboratory, Wear facilitated a meeting between the entrepreneur and city officials. Griffith stresses the city must proceed cautiously although he acknowledges the notion of restoring abalone is appealing. Decisions would require public hearings and approval by the mayor and city council. "Mr. Gilbert is asking us to have faith, but I'm acting on behalf of the public trust. I can't bend the rules," Griffith said. "Eight square miles of the ocean floor may be more valuable to the public now and in the future without a lease encumbering it."
Real-estate assets department records indicate the city has not negotiated a sea-bottom lease, and there is virtually no demand for such contracts. In 1933 California granted the City of San Diego authority to rent the ocean floor, but apparently both state and city officials at times have forgotten about that transfer of authority. On letting abalone larvae loose near Point Loma in the early and mid-1980s under Department of Fish and Game leases, Gilbert was told he had been misinformed -- that he needed to rent from the city instead.
Gilbert spent nearly four years -- from 1987 to 1991 -- wrangling for an ocean-floor lease. In a report dated January 16, 1991, the city manager's office advised against it because restoring abalone might force the city to reduce pollution from its waste-water treatment plant in Point Loma. The cost of purifying the plant's water to meet shellfish standards would be too prohibitive, the report concluded, far exceeding any rental income.