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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."

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.

Talk of the plant's runoff tainting fledgling abalone has emerged once again. Unlike clams, mussels, and oysters, abalone are not filter-feeders -- meaning they don't strain vast amounts of water to obtain food, Gilbert said. Instead, abalone chew on kelp, and they don't concentrate toxins in the muscle that is eaten by humans, Gilbert said, repeating the same explanation he gave ten years ago. "That's a ridiculous hypothetical concern. People go out there and fish every day. For many decades people harvested abalone from Point Loma and placed it on the market. There were no outbreaks of anything."

Maurice Camillo, a retired seafood broker in Poway, was surprised to hear Gilbert is still jumping through bureaucratic hoops. "Don has been fighting an uphill battle, pouring his own time and money into this. I don't know how he lives. Frankly, I'm amazed he's still working on this, but he has a very focused mind," said Camillo, who served on the now-defunct California Abalone Advisory Committee. (When the commercial harvesting of abalone was banned in 1997, the committee disbanded and was replaced by the Recreational Abalone Advisory Committee.)

"The basic problem is Don does not come from academia. The scientists consider him a lay person. Nobody knows whether he's right or wrong. It's unfortunate he doesn't get a chance."

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