Sunken treasure - Abalone

Outer Bamnks diving on the Great Escape Southern California Live-Aboard Dive Boat

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Posted by on May 13, 2005 at 06:16:29:

Abalone divers willing to take the risk to pry loose a slice of heaven

SALT POINT STATE PARK - Visitors to the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts this time of year may wonder about that pounding sound they hear between the waves washing ashore. No, it's not a cacophony of crazed condo builders. Chances are it's abalone divers tenderizing the day's catch.

An evening of feasting on this huge, snail-like delicacy around the campfire is the payoff. But there is a price. It's not easy to hold your breath, free-dive into dark, chilly waters, pry loose a legal abalone and then bring it to shore.

Veterans of the sport don't dwell on the difficulty and danger, but it's real. Those 50-to 55-degree Northern California coastal waters can sap strength; while holding their breath for up to 60 seconds, they're fighting currents that could sweep them out to sea; and, on the return, they must brace against breaking waves that could trip them on the rocks.

Add to that the very slim chance of an encounter with a great white - a shark that may figure the divers as prey in lieu of a sea lion or seal.

"I don't feel it's risky. If it's a rough day, you don't want to get in the water," says Ian Russell, 36, a Davis man who fell hard for free diving and abalone while earning an advanced scuba certification years ago. He likes his tanks and scuba gear just fine, but there's a kind of hunter-gatherer challenge about abalone diving.

"It's the fun of getting some food that you can take back to the campsite and cook. And a love of the ocean," Russell says.

The divers speak respectfully of the diving and longingly of the dining, almost as if it is a privilege and a calling.

In California, abalone lovers are hard at it from April 1 until June 30, when the season takes a monthlong holiday. It resumes from Aug. 1 to Nov. 30. Each abalone diver, and those who walk and wade out to harvest abalone from among the rocks, or "rock pickers," must record their "take" on an Abalone Permit Report Card provided by the state Department of Fish and Game. (This year, perforations around the punch holes were inadvertently omitted when the cards were printed. Divers are asked to punch their own cards.)

Overfishing, disease and changes in habitat have led to a diminished fishery and thus tighter restrictions. Commercial abalone taking was banned beginning in 1997. The days of divers using air tanks and such to take abalone - which was allowed only south of San Francisco - are over.

A small aquaculture industry is providing limited supplies of small abalone to high-end restaurants and sushi bars from San Francisco to Japan, where a couple of tiny slices might cost $80.

Lately, the high value of abalone has been in direct correlation to the poaching problem, the DFG said. Offenses include taking more than the limit of three per day, three in possession, and 24 total per year.

Most violations consist of taking one or more abalone over the limit or not immediately updating the report card.

Sometimes, large numbers of abalone are taken illegally to be sold to restaurants or sent overseas. Dennis McKiver, a DFG warden who covers the Mendocino Coast, caught a pair of divers with 458 abalone - each valued at up to $100.

Another ring of poachers had taken abalone valued at $1 million, the DFG said.

"Abalone has been made one of our No. 1 priorities because it's become so valuable," said McKiver. "Even the abalone shells are a problem now. They used to cost only a couple of dollars apiece in a store, but now they can cost up to $30. So, we've been given extra money to double our enforcement efforts."

In addition to wardens who patrol, the DFG uses an undercover unit to target commercial poaching. Penalties for these can reach five years in jail and a $40,000 fine.

A mysterious creature

The only species that may be legally taken is red abalone. A red abalone must be at least 7 inches along its longest dimension, as measured by a fixed caliper, to be legal. The red is the largest and most plentiful variety and is found at depths ranging from the intertidal zone to around 60 feet.

Free divers such as Russell typically don't go much deeper than 25 feet or stay underwater longer than a minute. And they're limited to relatively few access points along the rugged coastline.

Rock pickers are even more limited, their searches restricted to rocky areas exposed for short times at the lowest tides. (Such very low tides are coming up the last week of May and again toward the end of June.)

Abalone that escape the divers and rock pickers don't do so by evasive tactics. They don't move very far or very fast - they are like snails, after all - and rely on camouflage and blending in with their surroundings.

"Abalone are not really well suited to survive a fishery," said Jerry Kashiwada, a DFG marine biologist. "They take a long time to grow and they're just not great at reproduction. They produce a lot of eggs, but it doesn't add up to a lot of small abalone, and some years there's very little successful spawning. We're not sure why. We haven't been seeing a lot of small abalone the past several years, and we're seeing divers and rock pickers having to go farther and farther away from access points to find them."

Go with the flow

As for the art of finding and harvesting abalone, the key is to be adequately equipped and trained.

Proper equipment includes a 7-millimeter-thick wet suit, hood, booties and gloves for warmth in the frigid water; a mask and snorkel; a weighted belt with quick release and 20 to 30 pounds or more of lead weights; a float; a regulation abalone prying iron; and a measuring gauge (caliper).

Russell, who likes to buy high-quality gear, estimates it costs around $1,000 to be outfitted. But you can get into the sport for half that cost and renting equipment is an option.

Of course, gaining the knowledge to be successful and the wisdom to operate safely aren't as easy as writing a check.

"The feeling of being in the ocean and diving for abalone is hard to describe," said Pam Wade of Sacramento, one of the few women involved in the sport. She's a past president of the Sacramento Seahorse Dive Club. "I really love being in the water, but you never know what you're going to find when you go over to the coast.

"You're taking your life in your hands. It's exciting, challenging and always changing. But it's also peaceful and beautiful. It can be clear and calm, like the first time I dove. It was 20 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The water was so clear I could see the abalone (as I was) looking down from the surface. I was hooked. Other times, though, it's been so rough and the visibility so bad, I've hit my head on rocks when I went down.

"But it's always great."

New abalone divers have to learn to respect the winds, waves and currents, which can stir up hazardous conditions. Even the best swimmers need pointers.

Just learning to relax on the surface, face in the water, breathing through the snorkel and slowing the heart rate after a long swim out, or after a long dive, is vital. It's wise to team with an experienced partner. The most common advice: Use the ocean's power and currents rather than fight them. Go with the flow.

"Relaxation is key," said Derek Binon, an avid abalone diver and sales manager for Dolphin Scuba Center in Sacramento. "I notice that as soon as the diver puts his abalone iron in his hand, his heart rate goes up. When I go out with beginners, I first have them go down without an iron and just look around. It's such a beautiful environment down there, and it takes a while to get comfortable, to learn what to look for and the kind of places where abalone hang out."

Abalone tuck themselves into cracks, crevices and under overhangs, where seaweed, especially kelp, is abundant - but never in sandy areas. They are camouflaged, with their outer shell covered in the same kind of algae growing on the rocks around them. Their "foot" - the suction, the snail-like part of the anatomy - holds them tightly to the rock.

Experience teaches newcomers to avoid undersized abalone, which must be returned to the same spot from which they were pried. That's a delicate maneuver. Just a nick from a pry tool can cause the abalone to bleed profusely and kill it.

Once a diver determines an abalone is legal size, he or she has to pry it off. A diver who is careful can slide the iron under the foot at least half the shell length and lift the abalone free. Usually, the abalone is clamped tightly to its perch. Then it can be virtually impossible to get the iron far enough under the abalone to pry it loose. It's best, then, to acknowledge the abalone has won the battle and withdraw.

"I've actually seen abalone irons bent under the force of trying to get an abalone off a rock after it's clamped down," Binon said.

Assuming all goes well, the diver will meet the limit and soon be safely back on shore.

Though Kevin Kelly, 41, of Antioch is used to getting his limit, just being in the water is what satisfies him.

"I just love going up there and being on the ocean," he said. "I love the challenge of free diving. ... To hold your breath and go down and find abalone, that's fun."

Primitive and prized

An abalone is a mollusk, virtually unchanged since the Cambrian age, about 500 million years ago. California has eight species of abalone. The red variety, the largest, is the only one that can be taken legally.

Abalone are gastropods, a class of mollusks such as snails that generally have one-piece, straight or spiral shells.

They are broadcast breeders. An adult female sends out millions of eggs into the ocean current and is unlikely ever to come into contact with a male. Only a few eggs may be fertilized - if a male and female abalone happen to be within a few feet of each other. Some years, there is little successful propagation.

It can take up to 12 years for an abalone to reach adulthood. Traveling a quarter-mile would be an epic journey in its lifetime.

Not only are they prized for food, but the abalone's crusty outer shell hides an inner beauty: an iridescent mother-of-pearl sought after for jewelry.

Yet, the abalone, which has been loved nearly to death in many places, has suffered the most ignoble insult. It lost out to the lowly, slimy banana slug as California's official mollusk.

Common sea sense

Some places to dive

Among the better places to go abalone diving, especially for beginners, are Salt Point State Park in Sonoma County, and Van Damme and Russian Gulch state parks, the town of Caspar and Usal Beach, all on the Mendocino coast.

There are many camping spots along the North Coast that provide good access to sizable populations of abalone. Salt Point State Park, about 90 miles north of San Francisco and just north of Fort Ross, and Van Damme State Park, near Mendocino, are popular with divers and pickers.

To make a reservation at a state park: (800) 444-7275.

Also near Fort Ross is Ocean Cove, which has a general store and a private campground (707-847-3422). Divers with boats can launch at nearby Timber Cove Boat Launch (707-847-3278).

Divers looking for a more luxurious place between dives should consider Sea Ranch Lodge (707-785-2371), 20 miles north of Salt Point. It offers spectacular views and a full breakfast. Farther north, Harbor House Inn (800-720-7474 or is not inexpensive, but is a premier North Coast small inn and overlooks a cove full of abalone. The fee includes a gourmet dinner and breakfast to order.

Resources for abalone seekers

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