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Fort Bragg, Mendocino County--

Business was down on the North Coast this summer, and so was tourism. Many blame it on the weather. And so were urchin catches--partially, at least, due to the weather.

"Catches were probably among the poorest since the fishery began," said Pete Kalvass, marine biologist with the California Department of Fish & Game in Fort Bragg.

Bad weather was a factor. The earlier part of the summer was rougher than usual. There was even a winter storm in June.

But another reason, according to Kalvass, is that the urchin stock is down. When the stock in any fishery goes down, fishermen and divers go elsewhere. And that is what happened this summer, said Kalvass.

A 3-million pound fishery in Alaska drew some divers away from the North Coast. The season there ran from March to August. Some divers are also going after black cod or sable. It is a new fishery that makes an easy switch for urchin boats. Traps are set from the surface; and from Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg, the center for this developing fishery, the fish are not far from port. The limit-- 300 pounds per day--is the same as for urchin, and so is the price per pound.

Some divers also chose to go to southern California where the fishery is larger and the season has more open days in July, and some divers from the south chose not to come up this summer.

The seasons are now tricky. In California the season runs from April through October with 1 week closed per month, but from April through September, only 4 days per week are open--with the exception of June and August. For those 2 months, only 3 days a week are open. In the north, however, July is closed entirely; in the south, 2 days per week are open.

There has been controversy in recent years over the size of the urchin stock. Some think it has been depleted, others disagree. "The rates of replacement of the population in Northern California haven't been that good," said Kalvass. An ongoing study in how urchin stocks replace themselves could lead to changes in management of the fishery, and that tends to scare divers.

Elk diver Steve Acker said that he has not been diving as much this summer, but he thinks the stock is steady. "Years ago, before anyone hit it," said Acker, "there were huge amounts of urchins down there, but I think it is getting to a sort of steady state."


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