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Abalone Diving

Abalone Song Lucky Peach


For 100 million years, abalone blanketed the oceans’ floors as their predators evolved from tube-shaped critters to sea stars, fish, octopus, and eventually sea otters and other mammals. When humans moved into North America, abalone became a crucial food source for coastal dwellers. California’s Central and Northern Coastal tribes, who called themselves the Abalone People, would walk along the shore during low tide, pry as many abs as they wanted off the rocks, and then cook them slowly in pits of seaweed and red-hot stones, a primitive sous vide. They carved their shells into tools and necklaces and traded them as currency.

Studies of middens (ancient piles of discarded shells) that date back almost three thousand years on San Clemente Island, in Southern California, reveal unimaginable amounts of abalone consumed by native peoples. In fact, islanders cleared the entire island of black abalone before they decided to look for other sources of protein.

Next to treasure abalone were the Chinese immigrants, who turned to fishing after they finished building the railroads. By the 1870s, Chinese residents were exporting a few hundred thousand pounds of dried meat to Asia and shells to Europe every year. When they became too successful, the Chinese Exclusion and Scott Acts turned the abalone over to the Japanese, until they were put in internment camps. Around then, others caught on.

At its peak, in 1957, California’s commercial fisheries pulled in 2,500 tons of abalone. Just four decades later, the haul was less than a tenth of that. In the nineties, marine scientists reported that a combination of overfishing and disease had decimated the most-eaten species—the red, green, and pink. The rarest black and white species landed on the endangered list. Last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service began the process of adding the pinto and its subspecies, the threaded abalone, to that list. Today, there is no commercial abalone fishing allowed in the United States, which means buying farmed or imported abalone are the only legal options. Only one variety—the red abalone (Haliotis rufescens)—can still be fished recreationally.

“Recreationally” may be the wrong word. To find reds, divers like Lackey risk being slammed against rocks, tangled in kelp, caught in crevices, rendered unconscious by hypothermia, lost in underwater caves, bitten by eels, or simply pulled under by the sea. Last year in California, four divers drowned in a span of eight days in Sonoma and Mendocino. The death rate among abalone divers is more than three times that of skydivers.

And there are sharks. Ask veteran ab-divers, and they’ll tell you exactly how rare shark attacks are, suggesting they’ve looked up the statistics themselves. There have been 101 reported unprovoked shark attacks in the last century in California—only a few involving abalone divers. When Steve and I were picking up gear at Sub-Surface Progression, a North Coast diving institution, a group of young divers told me about a guy who had been somewhere north of Fort Bragg when a great white breached and pulled him under. Probably just a legend to scare people away, one said.

“That was my buddy Randy Fry,” Steve said softly, and the shop went silent.

Later Steve told me that on a dive in Bolinas years ago, he pushed his way through a kelp forest only to surface in a ring of seal carcasses, each with a bloody stump where its head should have been. “People die in their cars every day,” he said. “You still gotta drive.”

Stashed in: Sharks!, Fishing!, California, Sea Creatures

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Geez, I never realized how dangerous fishing for abalone is!

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