Freediving for Red Abalone. Photo: Ken Bailey.

From the surface, I see a vague shape deep below me. Is it a rock or the curve of a big snail? I take a deep breath and submerge. It is dark, numbingly cold, and the air is burning in my lungs. I’m 20 feet down, hanging on to the edge of a crevice trying to reach the prize inside: a red abalone. It’s just inches away from the reach of my abalone iron, a long flat blade used to pry the strong creatures from their foothold on the bottom. The kelp pelts me as the current whips me back and forth, almost as if it is protecting the animal. Between wave surges, and with a herculean kick, I thrust my iron forward and slip it gently under the animal. I’m relieved to find that it’s above legal size. I swim to the surface and take a deep breath. A few hours and dozens of dives later, I reach my three-abalone limit and head to the beach, exhausted but stoked. A feast!

Heading down to the water to look for abalone at Salt Point State Park in Northern California. Photo: Brian Heifferon

If you’re wondering why somebody would work so hard to catch what, to a biologist, is a large snail, I’ll start by saying that abalone is one of the most exquisite things to eat from the sea. They occur worldwide in every ocean and their 56 species are highly prized for their colorful shells and delicious taste. They range from the tiny and rare “most beautiful abalone” (Haliotis pulcherrima ) in French Polynesia, which is less than an inch in size, to the giant red abalone (Haliotis rufescens ) along the California coast which ranges up to 12 inches and 14 lbs. It’s buttery and slightly salty and tastes like a cross between scallop and calamari. But it’s not just the flavor: the challenge of collecting wild abalones is just as much part of the draw. They fight you from the moment you find them until they enter your mouth. Once you get to shore you still have to shell, trim, fillet, and then pound the abalone into submission. But after all that, the paradoxically soft, firm, and slightly chewy texture is worth it. Beyond the culinary appeal and the thrill of the chase, abalone has a more personal significance for me: It’s why I became a marine biologist in the first place.

The California Red Abalone. Photo: Derek Stein.

I first saw an abalone in the 1960s in San Diego when my brother caught a few and brought them home to eat. Although I was initially repulsed by the slimy, smelling creature, I became strangely fascinated as it twisted and turned and attempted to escape our sink. Later, in college, my fascination was rekindled when I found them in the cracks and crevices along the shores of Shell Beach in California after surfing, and a lifetime pursuit began.

ab face
The adorable face of the white abalone. Photo: UC Davis, Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory.

At first, I’d observe them hiding in cracks along the shore at low tides, but as my obsession grew I needed to learn more about them, so I turned to snorkeling, which became a gateway to Scuba diving. I started studying them in a homemade laboratory –instead of eating them — much to my friends’ consternation. Slowly, I began to appreciate their cute little faces — black eyes on a small head framed by twin tentacles. Plus, the shell was amazing! Their round ear-like shell lined with iridescent mother-of-pearl is coveted the world over, and my growing shell collection became a growing reminder of all my adventures as a biologist. At that point, there was no turning back. Now, as a Professor of Marine Biology and Director of Humboldt State Universities Marine Laboratory, I can reflect on 40 years of chasing wild abalone.

Dr. Abalone surveying black abalone on Año Nuevo Island in 1987. Photo: Susan Tissot

What makes studying abalone truly adventurous is finding relatively undisturbed populations to study; which is quite a challenge given their popularity as food. Ultimately, that means working in remote, off-limits, and sometimes dangerous places. There’s the west end of Santa Cruz Island, for instance, a site I have studied for several decades; which takes a three-hour boat trip and several hours by 4-wheel drive vehicle on a rugged road to reach. To study the abalone, my field assistants and I would navigate cliffs, waves, and strong currents, often in the dark before dawn. At other times, we would head to the seal-and shark-infested waters off Año Nuevo, an island south of San Francisco, where the greatest challenge is staying clear of three-ton elephant seals, which look lumberingly slow but can cover 30 feet in a heartbeat.

Dried abs chinatown_Jim_Wilson, NYTimes
Dried abalone from South Africa in a Honk Kong market. Prices varied from $223-$41 US per pound depending on size, quality, etc. Photo: Jim Wilson.

Still elsewhere, facing abalone’s high demand and slow growth rates, escalating prices and rampant poaching has resulted in divers competing with pirates and poachers for the haul. In some places like South Africa, a once-pleasant pastime has become a deadly pursuit. During the early 2000s the demand for abalone in the Hong Kong market exploded and illegal catches comprised the bulk of South Africa’s annual catch, estimated at more than 2000 tons per year. Because of its lucrative nature, Chinese criminal syndicates became involved in the fishery resulting in engagement in the drug trade and broader criminal activities. The South African fishery for “White Gold” as the abalone are called, is now regarded as a large‐scale, highly organized transnational crime complete with sophisticated counter-intelligence, forced labor, gunfights and transformative changes in low-income fishing communities.

Clockwise from left: Native American shell trade routes in the SW (Cox, 1960).  Black abalone in shell middens in the California Channel Islands. Handmade Yurok shell, and abalone shell earrings.

But it wasn’t always deadly. In California, native Americans harvested abalone for food along the coast for thousands of years, picking and pulling them out of crevices along the shore and even diving for the eight species of local abalone. Shell middens record abalone use throughout California and their shells were valuable trade items in a network covering half of North America. In the 1850s, first Chinese shore pickers, then Japanese divers, began harvesting the rich resource, and large-scale commercial fisheries were established in the 1930s. Red abalone were the backbone of the commercial abalone fishery, catches averaging over 2,000 tons a year during the 1950s and 1960s.

abalone 3

Growing up in San Diego in the 1960s, I recall small burger shacks along the beach used to sell abalone steaks for under a dollar. Later, I explored massive abalone shell piles in California and Baja, the remnants of a once vibrant fishery. In the 1970s the catch began to decline due to fishing pressures, poor management, growth in the sea otter population, and disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The fishery closed in 1997 when catch rates were just 4% of their former glory, and that closure left the Northern California recreational fishery as the only place to hunt abalone in the state. As a result, abalone fisherman were pushed into a 200-mile section of the rugged Northern California coast where red abalone could only be caught by free-diving. It proved to be a deadly change: on average, a handful of people die each year harvesting abalone; 15 in 2007-2008.

Although many abalone divers are experienced skin divers, others are unaccustomed to the Northern California coast. Conditions can be treacherous and even seasoned divers get caught in bad situations. Large waves and rip tides can drag divers far out to sea. Others die of exhaustion or heart attacks in the water or while scaling cliffs with ropes to find unfished areas. Then there are the sharks: since 1960, 13 attacks have occurred on abalone divers, including a fatal attack in 2004.

Coast Guard rescue for abalone divers off northern California in April 2015. Photo: USCG.

Unfortunately, California abalone are having a hard time these days and in 2017, the red abalone fishery was closed to protect dwindling populations. Warm coastal seas in recent years have caused dramatic declines in kelp, the main food source for abalone in Northern California, which resulted in dramatic increases in kelp-eating sea urchin population following the death of their principal predator, the sunflower sea star from wasting disease and warm ocean conditions. Since sea urchins also feed on kelp, abalone are starving and, ultimately, dying. Current management efforts are being reevaluated to protect the resource by including climate change, poaching * and a broad range of environmental and biological indicators to construct an adaptive fishery management plan that can respond to today’s rapidly changing conditions.  Although two species are on the endangered species list (whites and blacks), heroic efforts are being made to culture and outplant baby abalone seed for green, white, and red abalone in kelp forests in efforts to restore depleted populations. What the future may bring is unknown due to the unpredictable nature of coastal environments and the response of cold water species like red abalone. Although ongoing aquaculture efforts are successful and will ensure a future supply of abalone for food, there is no replacement for the chase, lore, and allure of abalone fishing and Native American cultural use, which in many ways is equally (or more) important as the meal at the end of the day.

*Poaching is rampant and the illegal take may rival the legal sport catch of 250,000 per year. Poachers face severe fines and may serve years in prison.

Back at the beach, after catching my limit, I begin the ritual of cleaning and eating the abalone around the campfire. With my abalone iron, I excise the large muscular foot — the edible part — from the shell and trim off the guts and the dark edges of the foot with a knife. I slice what remains into thick steaks to prepare it for the pounding, which tenderizes the meat. Abalone can be used in many dishes including eating them raw in a ceviche, cooked in a chowder or Cioppino, and/or sauteed, breaded or grilled like a steak.

Pounding abalone always calls to mind the ritual tied to the “Abalone Song,” which was first composed in the art colony days of Carmel around 1907 by the writer George Sterling and his friends. Since pounding can take time, people would sing while they pounded away, making up verses as they went along. The song should only be sung while pounding the abalone, and new verses can be composed, but only when in high spirits and good company, and they all must end in the word “abalone.” Although Sterling was credited with writing the initial verses, others soon added their own, including Jack London and Robinson Jeffers, among others.

▲ click to hear the music ▲

The song is sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” with the mallet pounding the abalone to keep the beat. It is always good to remember to avoid getting carried away and pounding the abalone into oblivion. Abalone are much too valuable for that!

The Abalone Song

Oh, some think that the Lord is fat,
And some think he is bony,
But as for me, I think that he,
Is like an abalone.

Oh, some drink rain, and some champagne,
And whisky by the pony,
But I will try a dash of rye,
And a hunk of abalone.

The more we take, the more they make,
In deep-sea matrimony,
Race suicide will ne’er betide,
The fertile abalone.

Oh some folks boast of quail on toast,
Because they think it’s tony,
But I’m content to owe my rent,
And live on abalone.

Oh mission point’s a friendly joint,
Where every crab’s a crony,
And true and kind you’ll never find,
The clinging abalone.

He wanders free beside the sea,
Where’er the coast is stony,
He flaps his wings and madly sings,
The plaintive abalone.

We sit around and gaily pound,
And bear no acrimony,
Because our object is a gob,
Of sizzling abalone.

He hides in caves beneath the waves,
His ancient patrimony,
And so ’tis shown that faith alone,
Reveals the abalone.

I telegraph my better half,
By Morse or by Marconi,
But if the need arise for speed,
I send an abalone.

Some live on hope and some on dope,
And some on alimony,
But our tom cat he lives on fat,
And tender abalone.

Oh some like ham and some like lamb,
And some like macaroni,
But bring me in a pail of gin,
And a tub of abalone.

As the smell of the tenderized abalone steaks sizzling in butter surrounded me and my friends, I gave thanks once again to these special gifts from the sea and all that I have learned in life while chasing the abalone.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Sho Spaeth and the editorial team at Serious Eats for comments on the post.

Further Reading:

4 responses to “Abalone: the Chase, the Lore, the Future”

  1. Thank you for a very insightful post. Love reading your remanences and historical insight. Your post paints a lovely picture of the joy we use to experience when harvesting abalone over the many years– ending in 2017.

    Now it’s just a dream if not fearfully becoming a faded memory if the proverbial tide doesn’t change soon.

    Sadly the ban on abalone harvesting is proposed to extend another two years by the California Fish and Game Commission. Unfortunately, ocean conditions are not improving for California’s red abalone, and populations continue to decline due to severe starvation conditions…Read the purple urchin have wiped out the coastal ecology. And now, in the present tense, the kelp and the abalone are gone.

    The Commission unanimously authorized publication of notice of intent to amend regulations to extend the fishery closure sunset date for the recreational red abalone fishery through April 2021. They will take action on whether or not to extend the closure the season at their December meeting.

    This is not only a fishery issue it is also an economic, tourism, issue. The Sonoma/Mendocino coastal towns are taking a significant hit by the lack of ab divers refusing to return to what is now just an ocean floor made barren due to the decimation by the urchins. What use to be my busiest session,during the abalone harvesting season, has seen guests decline to make the arduous trip up the coast. Visitors to the sonoma coastal area, such as The Sea Ranch, need to be informed there are other adventures to be had (see: https://searanchabalonebay.com/activities/visit-sea-ranch/). But sadly even recent reports made by coastline divers turned anglers note a significant reduction of fished, verified by diving along those same rocks with speargun in hand. Most likely I imagine it’s due to the lack of kelp forests the bottom-dwelling rock fish varieties have left the area as well.

    Nonetheless, t it was a pleasant walk down memory lane.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: