Underwater Ups and Downs Diving into California's last abalone fishery. By Daniel Duane
Former Navy frogman Mark James protects his beloved abalones by diving deep, where they are plentiful, and taking specimens by hand that are at least two inches larger than rules allow.
Mark James disappeared. Just like that. Two hundred yards offshore, kicking with flippers while waves crashed against the cliffs, he tied his boogie board to a heavy kelp stem, cleared his face mask, took a deep breath, and vanished. Worse still, I should've been with him, but when I put on my own mask and looked underwater, I couldn't see more than six feet in the frigid gray-green gloom, and the ocean bottom was apparently much deeper than that. Not on your life, I thought. Not on your life am I going to hold my breath and dive into that murk, with no clue what's down there. I'm a surfer, after all, and that means I spend a lot of time sitting on my surfboard on this same Northern California coastline, doing my darnedest not to think about what lurks below. The only time I get a glimpse, generally speaking, is when a big wave drives me deep and everything goes black and I get scared witless, feeling far too close to the figurative abyss.
But then I started feeling lonely. Nobody around--we'd launched from an unnamed, rarely visited beach just south of Fort Ross--and no surfboard to sit on and my whole body wriggling below the surface. Was it really safer up here? Would I fare better down in the dark? And don't shark eyes do a brilliant job of delineating prey from a background, seeing a silhouette against the lighter water of the surface? Yes, in fact, they do, and my toes could be only inches above a 20-foot man-eater without my having the slightest clue. Except maybe for a weird current or something. I'd probably feel a current. But that doesn't really matter because great whites don't lurk to begin with. They set up the hit from far below, pull the trigger, and smash into you like a freight train. So for that reason, I swam over to a particularly big mass of kelp and tried to float in the middle of it--the aquatic version of hiding behind a bush. Except I was wearing a weight belt, because I'd had this crazy idea that I'd be courageous enough to try abalone diving with James. I could barely tread water, and my flippers kept getting tangled in the weeds, making it hard to stay afloat and also reminding me of the number one cause of death among abalone divers: entanglement in kelp, albeit deep underwater and not while cowering on the surface from unseen monsters.
James reappeared, holding a big, handsome abalone--a barnacle-encrusted mollusk that must have been nine inches across. He was smiling and relaxed, not at all winded, but how long had he been gone? A minute? Two? It was obscene. I couldn't possibly hold my breath that long. And yet abalones were the very reason I was here: Ever since I was a kid, seeing their shells on every Berkeley backyard fence--mother-of-pearl glistening in the sun, suitable for inlay on furniture and fine guitars--I'd thought of ab divers as somewhere between firefighters and mountain climbers on the derring-do scale. I'd always wanted to try it myself, to hold my breath and plunge beneath the waves and reemerge with California's finest natural shellfish, a glorious slab of white aquatic protein. But when I was a kid, abalones actually seemed abundant in the state. There was still a commercial fishery, sport-fishing limits were generous, and everybody's dad seemed to grab a few abs on weekends. With stocks now so depleted, all commercial harvesting has been outlawed on the West Coast, and recreational diving is allowed only north of San Francisco, and even then with strict limits: no more than 3 per day per person, for a total of 20 per season, and scuba gear forbidden. But the decline has merely slowed. I thought I'd better try while I still had a chance at this traditional California pastime.
Now I was all the way out here among the kelp beds, James had already succeeded on his first dive, and I'd reached the moment of truth.
"You swear you'll follow me down?" I asked.
"The whole way," he said.
"The whole way?"
He nodded, and for reasons I still don't understand, I took a deep breath, turned upside down, and started kicking.
If there's ever been a resource that reflects the ups and downs of our relationship to the natural world, it's the abalone. Native Californians harvested the mollusk long before European contact--abalone shells appear in ancient village middens--and it's no wonder. Just waiting for low tide and picking among the exposed boulders, a man could easily feed his family. Then when Russian fur traders nearly wiped out sea otters in the 1700s, dropping the population from around 16,000 to about 50, abalone numbers skyrocketed in all five of the main West Coast species. In 1850, a group of Chinese immigrants drawn by the gold rush finally took notice, initially with the black and green abalones, the two species that lived in the intertidal zone. Familiar with abalone from back home, they began plying the shallows around Monterey in small skiffs, using long poles to gaff the mollusks. Within a few weeks, according to an 1853 article in the Daily Alta California newspaper, a rival Chinese camp had sprung up and then an even bigger one, packing their catch for shipment through San Francisco's Chinatown, the meat heading to China and the shells to Europe, to be used for fancy buttons and fine inlay on jewelry and boxes. By May of that year, 500 or 600 "Celestials," as the Chinese were called, had plunged themselves into an "abalone rush" that nearly wiped out Monterey stocks within ten years.
With thousands of Chinese immigrants still entering the state to work on the railroads, their abalone operations simply moved on--first to San Diego Bay, where nearly 1.5 million pounds a year were harvested throughout the 1870s, and then, when San Diego's supply ran out, onward to Baja, where 50-foot Chinese junks carried flat-bottomed skiffs on trips of hundreds of miles. Chinese abalone-fishing colonies also sprang up clear through central California and even on the Channel Islands, in Santa Barbara County. The fishery had its ups and downs: Prices began to plummet in the 1880s as larger shells became scarce and only small specimens remained, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Scott Act of 1888 made it illegal for Chinese workers to enter the United States and for resident Chinese to reenter the country--from their Mexican fishing grounds, for example--effectively closing the industry by 1900. But Japanese Americans revived it, particularly because they were willing to free-dive for red abalone, a species that lives in subtidal waters, and later sent helmeted "hard hat" divers deeper still. Drying abalone meat in the sun, they shipped to the Far East. They also began small-scale canning.
Living on the coast back then, it must've been hard not to notice that abalones were there for the taking, and the "recreational" abalone harvest was so huge by 1913 that a legal minimum size and a daily-take limit were already in place. A report from the California Department of Fish and Game recorded that game wardens were making spot checks of the take, that arrests and confiscation had become commonplace, and that abalones had completely vanished from the normally rich intertidal zone. That year, the state legislature tried to control the industry further by banning the export of abalone (and then prohibiting abalone drying in 1915), but a new market had just opened up.
"Pop" Ernest Doelter, a German immigrant chef with a cafe in Monterey, had figured out how to thin-slice abalone steaks, tenderize them with a mallet, and quick-fry them for a delicious meal. Abalone fast became the signature dish of the many bohemian artists and writers living in Carmel, including Jack London, George Sterling, and Mary Austin, who wrote in her autobiography about cooking abalone chowder over a bonfire at big beach parties. In 1915, Doelter took his act to the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco, serving abalone steaks at the Hofbrau Restaurant at Fourth and Market Streets. Suddenly the shellfish became a must-have staple of Northern California restaurants, and Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf became an enormous abalone-meat processing operation. By 1935, the state abalone take was up to 3.9 million pounds a year, and although it tanked again in 1943, when Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, it soared to its historical high in 1957, when 5.4 million pounds were landed.
Abalone numbers began sliding immediately after. To look at a chart of the annual take, knowing that fishing technology and market demand were both getting stronger, is to watch the inexorable exhaustion of a once plentiful resource. The roaring comeback of the sea otter in central California starting in the late 1930s--today there are about 2,700 otters, almost all between Monterey Bay and Point Concepcion--played a definite role. So did the big El Nino winter in 1983; warm sea-surface temperatures, like those associated with greenhouse-gas-driven global warming, can wipe out kelp habitat, depriving abalones of their primary food. There has also been a proliferation of withering syndrome, a mysterious disease that has driven one subspecies of abalone to near extinction. But unsustainable harvesting has clearly been the biggest problem: Each time an abalone species has collapsed from overfishing, divers have simply moved on to the next, pushing it, in turn, to the brink.
Abalones grow slowly, taking as much as ten years to reach a desirable size, and they reproduce in a spectacularly inefficient manner. Their spawning requires a certain density--no more than three or four feet between individuals, according to one estimate. "Synchronous broadcast spawning" is the mouthful that describes abalone reproduction: Males and females spew millions of sperm and eggs into the surrounding seawater and hope a few bump into each other. Those that do find their counterpart sink to the bottom, hatch, and spend a few weeks drifting in the plankton, eating bacteria and algae. Later, after they've attached themselves under some boulder to avoid being eaten by crabs, lobsters, octopuses, and other predators, they switch to eating drift kelp and then gradually move to more-vulnerable crevices. When their shells get to be big enough to ward off most fish and crustaceans--about six inches across--abalones shift to exposed surfaces, where they graze on the big roots of the bull kelp that anchor on rock reefs. And that's when the trouble starts--partly with otters, which swim down and use rocks to smash up abalone shells and then pry the muscles off the rock, and partly with humans. When people and otters start thinning the herd, a tipping point can be reached at which reproduction almost comes to a halt.
In 1993, the statewide take had dwindled to 461,376 pounds, and by 1997 a moratorium was placed on all abalone harvesting--commercial and recreational--south of San Francisco. The only remaining abalone fishery is the one I entered with James: the strictly recreational, tightly controlled sport-fishing grounds north of San Francisco Bay. And even that one, long considered a model of a well-managed, sustainable fishery, may be on its way out.
Otter vs. Abalone?
Marine issues can be murky. One of the abalone's main predators is the southern sea otter, a threatened species environmentalists are working hard to protect. Last October, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to abandon its efforts to "translocate" the otter away from fishing areas off the California coast. Rather than prohibit the once vibrant animal, the agency wants to find a way for both abalones and otters to thrive, as they did for 5 million years. For more, visit the Otter Project at otterproject.org.