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The shell game

These luscious, lustrous snails used to be a California icon, Eric Simons writes. Up north, divers still dare to hunt them, while wardens hunt wetsuited scofflaws.

October 07, 2003|Eric Simons

It's a dreary morning on the Northern California coast. A man in wetsuit and snorkel dives, scans the murky water through steamy mask, and is about to kick frantically for the surface when -- finally -- he spots his well-camouflaged prey. Finding it again in the cold and surging current may be impossible. So, with blasts of adrenaline telling the brain not to worry about evaporating air supply, the grimacing diver begins wrestling with California's most coveted and unlikely game animal.

On another morning, atop a rocky bluff about 50 miles up Highway 1 near Ft. Bragg, a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game scans the ocean with high-powered binoculars. Spotting a cluster of divers around a rusty orange Zodiac, he zooms in. What he sees there bobbing on the swells prompts him to key his handy-talky and alert his colleague, Dennis McKiver, who is piloting a patrol boat through the fog nearby.

And so begin two recent scenes in the parallel hunts that take place during California's abalone season, which runs from April through June and August through November. The primary hunt, in which divers pry gastropods off rocks, used to consume Southern California just a few decades back. But there are almost no abalone left here now -- which is why the state takes its hunt for poachers so seriously, and why five years ago, it ordered up a strategy for a Southern California abalone comeback -- a plan that the California Fish and Game Commission is scheduled to hold public hearings on any day now.

Oddly appetizing

George LAWRY, a 72-year-old Santa Rosa resident and founder of a judicial watchdog group called the Sonoma County Abalone Network, says he remembers wading into the water as a 12-year-old and finding it easy to pry loose the limit of 10 abalone. He remembers barbecuing abalone on the beach at family picnics and beach town restaurants that served abalone steaks and sandwiches.

Just a few decades back, abalone was California's culinary icon, as closely linked with this state as the lobster is with Maine. It's even harder to imagine what possessed the first Native American to try eating these slime-oozing snails than to understand why someone first chomped down on those cockroach-like crustaceans. Yet the reason the iridescent shellfish is now so rare is simple: epicurean lust.

To most modern hunter-gatherers it's a mere bonus that the inside of an abalone shell is glass-hard "mother of pearl" -- an oil-on-water psychedelic swirl worthy of fine jewelry and the sort of folk art yard decorations that give some redwood-darkened Northern California glens the feel of creepy Hobbitvilles. What really enflames predatory passion, is the meat. Slice it just right. Grill it in butter. Then sink teeth into a delicacy of sensuous texture and exquisitely subtle taste.

Not that anything about the shellfish's biology would explain its culinary appeal. Abalone are marine mollusks, flying saucer-shaped snails that cling to rocks with a muscular foot capable of clamping down with suction 4,000 times that of its body weight. Six species were once common in California -- black, green, pink, pinto, red and white. A seventh species, the flat abalone, is small, rare and relatively unknown.

Broadcast spawners, abalone release clouds containing millions of sperm and eggs into the water. For the method to succeed, the animals need to be within a few feet of each other. Fifty years ago, black abalone stacked up like pancakes in shallow water, and commercial fishermen harvested more than 2,000 tons of reds and pinks a year.

"When I started diving in 1968, you could go to coastal areas of Southern California and see tons of abalone," says Pete Haaker, a biologist in the Fish and Game office in Los Alamitos. "It wasn't like it used to be in the first half of the century. But you could see red abalone and pink abalone and green abalone and lots of fishes. Today it's orders of magnitude lower. The problem is you just have too many people fishing a limited resource."

Divers were never allowed to use scuba gear in Northern California. But in Southern California, where such gear was permitted, divers picked out the bigger abalone, reducing the density and the chances of successful reproduction. The abalone that were left continued to grow without making babies, until they, too, were big enough to get picked. Over 30 years of fishing, the density has dropped dramatically, leaving the few abalone that remain to live out solitary lives, childless and alone.

Population surveys show declines nearly everywhere. On the central coast, where sea otters dine on abalone, there will probably never again be a fishery. And the white abalone could be the first seafood fished to extinction by humans searching for food. The numbers are so low that one trauma could push blacks, greens and pinks into the same boat.

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