Diving into California's last abalone fishery.

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Posted by on April 12, 2006 at 19:22:43:

Underwater Ups and Downs
Diving into California's last abalone fishery.
By Daniel Duane

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.

I'd awakened in San Francisco that morning before dawn, kissed my sleeping daughters, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in the dark, and shot north up Highway 101, past the already-clogged southbound commute. Turning west on 116, through Petaluma and into Sonoma County farm country, I'd found my way to James's Sebastopol home, on a quiet rural lane. I'd first met him years before, when he was fresh out of the Navy SEALs, hurling himself at the professional triathlon circuit and starting an undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz. James was on the university's swim, cross-country, and bike teams simultaneously, completing all of the respective workouts despite being almost ten years older than most of his teammates. Even in the hyper-athletic world of the SEALs, James was known as a fitness nut, a guy who would finish his training for the day and then spend all his rec time working out.

James also had a great spirit, an easy laugh, and a friendly demeanor, and he was clearly more interested in having fun than in fighting war. He became a regular at the Ironman Triathlon and later, after he graduated, discovered yet another outlet for his frogman training: abalone diving. When James and his wife moved to Sebastopol, it became a consuming passion, and he even signed up as a part-time Sonoma Coast lifeguard, helping with body-recovery operations whenever an ab diver managed to drown. When private security companies started sending contractors to Iraq, paying enormous salaries to guys like James--ex-commandos from the special-operations community--he preferred to stay home with his wife and kids and make as much time for the water as possible.

In an attempt to stop the continuing decline of abalone numbers--due in part to the booming popularity of recreational diving and in part to a serious problem with poachers, who can sell their illegal booty for more than $100 a pound--state officials have instituted stronger rules for the Northern California fishery. No abalone under seven inches can be legally taken, in the hope that all sexually mature specimens will get a chance to reproduce--a critical issue given that no significant reproductive event has occurred in at least ten years, leaving the population dangerously devoid of younger members. Scuba gear is also outlawed, so that enormous reaches of habitat, below the depth range of free divers, can operate as de facto breeding sanctuaries. And game wardens routinely patrol the coast, checking licenses and punch cards. Poaching now carries stiff penalties: Poachers busted in San Francisco in 2004 faced a $40,000 fine and a year in county jail.

Abalone diving is also dangerous, even for those who don't take it to the same extremes James does. Three or four divers die every year off the Sonoma and Mendocino County coasts--including one the month before we went and two a few months earlier--a number vastly higher, for example, than the mortality rate for surfing, which draws many more participants to the same waters. Some simply drown, others get stuck in kelp and forget to release their weight belts, and still others get dashed against cliffs by high seas. But there's also the shark hazard that had me so freaked out. Ever since the 1960s, when commercial divers began using wetsuits, flippers, and scuba gear--mimicking seals in a way the earlier Japanese hard-hat divers never did--sharks have taken a big interest. Attacks were common enough, in fact, that divers began experimenting with protective cages, which they'd lower to the ocean floor while they worked, wearing Kevlar body armor to shield the large arteries in the legs, and carrying Glock 9mm pistols.

Free divers are no safer. In August 2004, for example, Randy Fry and Cliff Zimmerman were floating side by side off the Mendocino County coast. "He might have just dived," Zimmerman recalled. "I was looking down when I heard a whooshing sound and felt the water move, as if a boat went by. I turned to see what it was and saw the side of a big fish." Fry was nowhere in sight, the shark having apparently taken him under, and moments later, Zimmerman said, "everything turned red." The lifeguards who found the body, while searching in a boat, began hauling Fry toward them only to see his head separate from the torso and sink. ("You go get it," one lifeguard is rumored to have said to another. "No way," his colleague replied. "You get it.") Three weeks later, Fry's head washed ashore and was found by a beachcomber.

But despite all this, James feels compelled to make the experience even more challenging because he's like that. He never brings an abalone iron--essentially a stainless-steel shoehorn--preferring to loosen the mollusks by hand. If you so much as brush against an abalone, its foot muscles seize hard against the rock, making it impossible to remove with a pry bar. And because abalones are hemophiliacs, and an iron can cut one's foot, the iron can easily cause an abalone to bleed to death before a diver has confirmed that it's within the legal limit. But if you sneak up carefully, you can flick an abalone right off the rock before it knows what's hit it; that way, if you've taken one that's too small, you can place it back on the rock, press until it has a good grip, and rest assured that you haven't killed the thing. James also abides by an even stricter self-imposed size limit--nine inches, a genuine rarity for most abalone divers and yet commonplace for him. Most astounding of all, he rarely dives in less than 50 feet of water and often goes as deep as 80 feet, even in near-zero visibility, to places where abalones are still truly plentiful. Those depths challenge scuba divers; they're monumental for free divers. Tagging along with this guy, in other words, was both a great way to make sure I got an abalone and a daunting proposition.

Shooting downward with surprising speed--aided by that weight belt--I tried to focus not on the awful, impenetrable gloom but on the small field of green kelp around my eyes. Except that green grew darker and I got way too scared, and then I spun around and beat it to the surface.

"Good job," James said. "You did fine. Try not to move your arms too much. You want to conserve oxygen. Real simple movements."

So I tried again: deep breath, flip over, shoot down, hit the panic point (Alert! Alert! You must turn back!), rocket back up. Brushing through a mass of kelp, I felt a rush of anxiety, but then I was in the fresh air again, gasping.

"Before you head for the surface," James said, ever the patient instructor, "always look up and make sure you've got a clear path. And if you do get tangled, remember to lose the belt. Oh, and also clear your nose when the pressure hurts. Just pause, relax, and clear your nose."

The next time, once underwater, I consciously tried to shed my fear, kicking loosely and letting my flippers do the work, my hands at my sides. When my ears began to ache, I did precisely as told and then continued down into a world I never thought I'd see, with the meter running on the oxygen in my lungs. Soon, a great darkness approached from below--the ocean bottom, absorbing light. When I'd come within visibility range, I was suddenly there: rock reef, seaweed, kelp anchors, this deeply hidden little universe thriving in the frigid opacity of the sea. I could see invertebrate critters on the rocks right around me, and yet I had literally zero sense of the larger topography. Was this a boulder I was looking at? The edge of an abyss? A shark or even a whale could've been ten feet off, and I wouldn't have known it. I was just succumbing to claustrophobia when I saw an abalone: a big, round shell stuck to a rock. Flicking it off quickly before it could seize the reef, I grabbed it, paused to look upward--the surface was a distant zone of light--tucked the creature under my arm, and swam for the airy world above.

James allowed me to keep that first abalone--my first ever--although it was only legal by a half-inch or so. But after that, he grew stricter and sent me swimming to the bottom again and again to return perfectly legal seven-inchers. He even followed me to make sure I properly reaffixed the abalones to the reef--which I failed to do on my first try, to his great dismay. He began shadowing me too, in part to make sure I didn't drown and in part to encourage me to pick specimens big enough to satisfy his standards. I became more and more confident with each dive, utterly exhilarated by the sense of risk and exploration, of an ocean floor teeming with these jewels. Diving to just over 25 feet, on my last dive, I relaxed enough to go searching, poking under rocks and cruising along the reef, sizing up one abalone after another until I settled on the one I wanted to take. Looking upward, I saw the daylight only vaguely, a shimmering silver patch lined with the black strands of the kelp forest. Then I rose toward it, waving my body in a long, easy dolphin kick.

That night, back home with my wife and daughters, having wrested dinner by hand from the ocean floor, I made a feast I won't forget--fried abalone steaks a la Pop Ernest--and I felt the sweetest sense of connection to a vanishing California, one in which the healthiest of foods are there for the taking, if only we don't take too much. I thought also about my backyard fence and how good those shells were going to look on the rails--they'd take me back, I knew, to cherished memories of my own childhood. I've even found myself humming, in the weeks since, the "Abalone Song," written in 1913 by George Sterling in the heyday of the Monterey abalone fishery:

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.

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