The California Red Abalone. Photo: Derek Stein.

It doesn’t sting or bite. It doesn’t have fangs or sharp teeth. No toxins, venom or poisons, It is not swift of foot, on a good day it may travel a few feet. In fact it spends decades sitting peacefully in cracks and crevices quietly munching on kelp. Among animals it is one of the most peaceful, mellow creatures on the planet. Yet in the last twenty years it has killed over 60 people and four so far this year. It’s weapon: it tastes phenomenally good. Meet the California red abalone.

The Red Abalone

The hunt for red abalone is a thrill, a passion, and a deadly pursuit. Although the thought of a tasty abalone dinner is the primary driver behind the hunt for the big reds it is much more than that: it is the thrill of diving for the elusive mollusk and the passion of the hunt for trophy (>10 inches) or monster abalone (see: Hunt for Monster Red Abalone). It wasn’t always so deadly: prior to the 1990s red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) were the backbone of the commercial abalone fishery and harvested commercially and recreationally from San Francisco to San Diego with landings averaging over 2,000 tons a year in the 1950s and 1960s. After that the catch rapidly declined due to intense fishing and poor management to 500 tons/yr in 1982 and less than 100 tons/yr in the late 1980s and early 1990s with eventual closure of the fishery in 1996. The closure left the Northern California recreational fishery (N. of San Francisco) as the only place to hunt abalone in the state and it currently serves 35,000-40,000 fishers a year who annually take an average of 260,000 abalone through shore picking and free diving — SCUBA gear is strictly prohibited. Thus, the 1996 closure focused a large number of people on a 200-mile section of the rugged northern California coast: the largest recreational abalone fishery in the world.

Freediving for Red Abalone. Photo: Ken Bailey.

Some say the deaths shouldn’t happen. Louis Martin who writes for CoastNews, describes the hunt well in “Dying for abalone: a California tradition, tragedy“:

To some they become the excuse to turn into a primitive food hunter and gatherer–to move down the food chain from man’s lofty position at the top. To others they become the reason for buying gear: wet suit, weight belt, mask, snorkel, fins, ab iron, and gauge. To others they become the reason to scale down the side of a cliff past Indian Paint Brush and Lupine to the rocky cove below. To others they become the reason behind the danger and excitement of crashing through big foamy waves on the way to deeper waters. Still to others they become the excuse for entering an alien world and exploring it–looking under rocks, admiring the colors of the rainbow perch, observing the expression of the wolf eel, getting rushed by a playful harbor seal, first thoughts being that it’s a shark–knowing you are in “their” world and being alert and on edge.

Death by Land and Sea

Although many abalone divers are veteran, experienced free divers, many others are weekend warriors or divers from other places not accustomed to the rigors of the northern California coast: steep cliffs, the restrictions of a thick wetsuit and heavy weight belt, navigating the rocky shore into the rough murky water, swimming out through big surf, and submerging into cold water for a couple of hours of free diving. Theses conditions are treacherous and even experienced divers can get caught in bad situations. Divers can get tangled in the kelp and drown. The currents off the northern coast of California can be strong and the weather can change very quickly. Large waves and rip tides can drag divers far out to sea, where they can quickly become fatigued and unable to reach the shore. Others die of exhaustion and heart attacks. Dwayne Dinucci, a legendary abalone diver interviewed by the New York Times describes the situation:

“I’ve gone into holes and all of a sudden a swell will come over and suck you into the hole, even farther than you wanted to come in, I wouldn’t say I’ve come close to losing my life. But I’ve had some scares. Which is good. Why do a lot of these people die? Mostly inexperience. We get a lot of Southern California divers, but the North Coast is different. It’s rough. And it can get rough” — Dinucci snapped his fingers — “like that. The key is to know where you’re coming out. Getting in is easy. Coming out is the hard part.”.

Indeed, many of the fatalities don’t even occur in the water. Of the four fatalities that have occurred so far in 2015, three were drownings in rough water but the fourth fell to his death from a steep bluff when he became trapped by the tides looking for abalone. As if the ocean wasn’t challenge enough: scaling steep cliffs with ropes to find remote, unfished areas is part of the lore and part of the danger.

Coast Guard rescue for abalone divers off northern California in April, 2015.

And then there are the sharks, great whites to be exact. Since 1960 there have 13 shark attacks on abalone divers on the North Coast including one fatal attack in 2004 ( Free diving and swimming up and down in a black wetsuit closely mimics white shark’s primary prey: sea lions and seals. Although the red abalone fishery is large the relatively small number of attacks isn’t very comforting when you’re in the water.

Two attacks stand out: while free diving for abalone off Bodega Rock in 1968 Frank Logan was astonished to find himself suddenly being carried through the water in the jaws of a great white shark which had him gripped from back to chest in its mouth and was shaking him violently. After poking the shark in the eye he was released but suffered a 1.5 ft. wound from 18 tooth punctures. In a TV interview the host said to Frank “You must have REALLY wanted that abalone!” He agreed that he did indeed. The other, a fatal attack by a 16-18 ft Great White on Randy Fry off Fort Bragg witnessed by his dive buddy still haunts the north coast abalone community; he was a tireless advocate for recreational fishers and the Sonoma County Abalone Network (SCAN) holds an annual memorial tournament for Randy.

The deadly geographic cone snail
The geographic cone snail, Conus geographus, which injects a cocktail of toxins, including insulin, into its prey. Photograph: Jeff Rotman/Alamy

Other Deadly Snails and marine creatures

Unfortunately the red abalone does not have exclusive rights to fatalities. The abalone trade in South Africa is so lucrative (up to $420/lbs) that chinese cartels have organized around the fishery with occasional violence breaking out over the transport of goods. Then there are other deadly snails and marine creatures. The cone shell (Conus) can inject a strong toxin with its harpoon-like tooth thats is responsible for several deaths. The box jellyfish, Chironex Fleckeri, is the most poisonous marine animal in the world and It is not uncommon for victims who have had extensive contact with their tentacles to experience cardiac arrest within minutes. Here are some numbers to put red abalone fatalities into perspective.

Comparison to other deadly activities:

  • 60: Of about 35,000 licensed abalone hunters in California, more than 60 have died in the past 20 years.
  • 27: Of about 300,000 licensed hunters in California, 27 died in accidents from 1994 to 2009.
  • 20: Fatal mountain lion attacks in North America since 1890, including 6 people in California.
  • 12: Skydiving deaths in California since 2004
  • 10: Fatal shark attacks in California since 1926 (out of 114 attacks)

References and Further Reading:


5 responses to “World’s Deadliest Snail: The California Red Abalone”

  1. I used to take a fair amount of abs, back in the mid ’80s when the limit was 4 in SoCal. The last time I went for abs I took a 6-pack out of San Diego, with 5 divers from the east coast I hadn’t previously met. The others were taking a long time getting in the water, and the captain knew I was experienced and local, so he let me go solo. I did a large search pattern, and finally found what I believe was the only ab left in the entire area. I popped it and showed it to one of the other divers that had come near, then after checking that it wasn’t injured, I put it back on its well-hidden spot. I couldn’t take the last one.

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