4 die in California while looking for a shellfish delicacy

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Posted by on May 02, 2007 at 15:42:30:

In Reply to: 4 ab divers die in 5 days posted by Eric S on May 02, 2007 at 15:30:19:

Risks abound as adventurous seek tasty abalones off of California's northern coasts.

The Associated Press

FORT ROSS -- As abalone diver Joe Vojvoda prepared to don his wetsuit hood and gloves on a rocky beach, he mused about the shellfish delicacy that lures many to the frigid waters.

"To die for, just to die for," Vojvoda said.

The quest for the mighty mollusk is indeed deadly. Four people perished in the past week in California while pursuing abalone, which is used in sushi and a variety of other Asian dishes and can sell for $100 apiece on the black market.

Abalone hunters rappel down cliffs, clamber over treacherously slick rocks and disappear into dark, choppy waters to pry mollusks from the ocean floor.

"That's part of the fun, right? You get a little adrenaline going," said one enthusiast, Ken Norton. "People get hurt, of course. People fall off rocks." But he added: "There's a little bit of danger in anything driving around in your car."

All four deaths in California this year happened over a five-day span in Mendocino County, which usually records three or four abalone-related deaths during the entire April-through-November season.

A new moon that drew large crowds to take advantage of unusually low tides, along with high winds that kicked up rough conditions, may have contributed to the latest deaths. The victims are believed to have drowned or died of heart attacks.

Because divers are allowed to use only a snorkel, some black out as they rush to the surface for air. Others get tangled in kelp. Some get exhausted in the churning surf or overexert themselves prying the stubborn, snail-like creatures from rocks. Three years ago, a great white shark bit a diver's head off.

Veteran divers and even the rock-pickers who ply chest-deep waters tell of being surprised by powerful surf that has washed them over the rocks or swept them out to sea.

Anthony Kan said in 20 years of abalone picking he has seen two people die. One died from hypothermia and another drowned in the weeds. He nearly died himself when he tripped at the edge of a cliff, catching a handful of grass before going over.

"I was really lucky," the 69-year-old said.

In Sonoma County, which sees a couple of diving-related deaths a year, an abalone diver with a head wound was rescued April 15 after he fell down a 35-foot cliff.

On April 21, Norton joined hundreds of wetsuit-clad hunters who scrambled down a grassy bluff and did an awkward dance over sea grass-covered boulders at Fort Ross State Historic Park where a reef juts into the Pacific and provides easy access.

Most used masks to search the shallows for easy pickings. Some groped the rocks for the large ear-shaped shells. The more adventurous swam out farther, where they bobbed up and down between breaths of air.

Some divers awoke as early as 4 a.m. to make the winding 90-mile trek north from the San Francisco Bay area to take advantage of the low tide.

The conversation at the water's edge sounded like an Asian market. Divers hailing from places where abalone is a delicacy and considered an aphrodisiac places such as China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and South Korea spoke in their native tongues.

"A long time ago it was food for the king only," said Tam Vuong. "Very, very rich people can eat abalone. It's really expensive and hard to find."

With a $34 fishing license, a $16 abalone report card, and the requisite gear, anyone willing to brave the risks can go for abalone.

The rules are simple: Red abalone is the only species legal in California, and can be harvested north of San Francisco Bay only; the limit is three abalone per day, 24 per season; no air tanks can be used; and the abalone must be 7 inches long and be removed from the rocks with a blunt device known as an abalone iron.

While farm-raised abalone is served in some restaurants, the naturally harvested mollusks cannot legally be sold. Catch limits have been reduced over the years to protect the species, and there is no longer any commercial harvesting in the wild.

Poaching is a problem. Game warden Lt. Steve Riske hid on the bluff Saturday and used a high-powered scope to watch the activity below. Four men accused of committing a variety of infractions including taking too many abalone were handed citations, and their catch was seized.

Among the abalone hunters, there was talk of how they would cook the meat, which has a delicate, sweet, clamlike taste. Some hammer the rubbery meat until it is tender, then fry it or grill it. Others grind it and make burgers or chop it into chowder.

"After you dive down there and freeze your fanny off," said Harry Morse, a spokesman for the state Fish and Game Department, "you deserve a delicacy."

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