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February 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Abalone: The Fatal Attraction

why are divers killing themselves over these marine mollusks?

from the February, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Just as the 2008 California abalone season was drawing to a close, a 29-year-old environmental engineer became the eighth person to die while hunting for the marine mollusks off Californias North Coast. Jonathan Su of Sunnyvale, CA, disappeared November 9 while freediving with a cousin at Fort Ross in Sonoma County. Eight days later, his body was found in 20 feet of water, his weight belt still attached. According to the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, Sus game bag was tangled in kelp, which may have prevented his body from drifting farther.

The cove at Fort Ross is considered one of the safest dive sites on the Sonoma coast, but on that day, noted Sonoma County Sheriffs Sergeant Glenn Lawrence, there were 12-foot swells. In those conditions, added Lawrence, Even an experienced diver can get in trouble.

More Dangerous Than Skydiving

As a conservation measure, only free divers or rock pickers may take abalone, and in California, only on the North Coast, which starts just above San Francisco Bay. In these parts, the Pacific rarely warms up over 55 degrees and can dip into the high 40s, so full 7-mil wetsuits are necessary. Visibility is generally 15 feet or less. During extremely low tides, rock pickers clamber out to pick the mollusks out of pools.

Besides a state license, you need an abalone iron to pry the single-shelled mollusks off of rocks (before they can clamp down with very forceful suction) and a seven-inch, caliper-style gauge to measure each abalone taken. Abalone are found near kelp, one of their food sources. Divers reach the kelp beds by kicking out from shore, usually with the aid of a tube float or boogie board to support their catch. Others dive from boats or kayaks. Most divers do their hunting in 10 to 20 feet of water, but its a high-risk hobby.

Since 1987, 71 people have died while diving or rock picking along the North Coast. Of roughly 40,000 people licensed to take abalone, at least 23 have died since 2004 in Mendocino and Sonoma counties. By comparison, of about 300,000 licensed hunters in California, 11 have died in accidents since 2004. The website DropZone.com, which tracks skydiving fatalities, reports 12 skydiving deaths in California during the same period. We deal with a lot of recreational activities, like hunting and fishing, and abalone diving takes more lives than any of them, said Sergeant Shannon Barney, deputy coroner of Mendocino County. Theres a lot of ways to get in trouble.

Divers and rock pickers can be buffeted by strong waves that smash them against the rocks or sweep them out to sea. Three died in Mendocino County over two days in April 2007, when the ocean was particularly rough. All of the 15 abalone hunters who died in the last two years lived outside the North Coast area. Blake Tallman, who runs Sub-Surface Progression Dive Shop in Fort Bragg, says locals have an advantage because they can wait for good conditions. The ocean is a lot more dangerous and unpredictable here than people think, he said. They definitely underestimate it.

Kelp Can Be a Killer

Some fatalities are linked to heart conditions or other health problems, but two this year were caused by trouble in kelp beds. These were the only two deaths yet attributed specifically to kelp entanglement, but they may not be the last. North Coast beaches are home to bull kelp, one of the worlds fastest-growing and largest algae, which provide habitat for abalone. The amount of growth and number of kelp varies from year to year, depending on the amount of nutrients in the water, says Pete Raimondi, director of the Long Marine Lab at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

This years kelp could be the thickest and strongest in decades. Kelp is having a very good year, after a series of bad years, Raimondi said. It could be the most kelp many people have seen. Thats because an upwelling of extra nutrients, probably created by cold water and strong winds, have fed this years growth.

Kelp entrapped and killed an experienced 54-year-old diver in August. Mike Guerrero, a novice abalone diver from Castro Valley, CA, was in Sonoma Countys Stillwater Cove when Craig Belluomini of San Bruno, CA, went missing. In an Internet posting, Guerrero described the attempts to rescue Belluomini, who was floating like a scarecrow with his hands touching the surface, but was trapped underwater by kelp that had wrapped around his leg. Belluomini must have attempted to free himself because his knife was missing from its sheath, Guerrero wrote, and his weight belt was missing as well. Sonoma County sheriff deputies said Belluomini may have been underwater for 10 minutes before being cut free and pulled to shore, where CPR was unsuccessful.

Longtime diver Rich Baer of Scottsdale, AZ, drowned a month later when kelp wrapped around his waist and shoulders, and held his head five feet under water. His friend Ron Long said he was 30 to 50 feet away when he saw Baer make his last surface dive. When Baer didnt come up after a minute, Long swam down and found him. It took Long and another buddy three dives to cut Baer loose. By then, he estimates, Baer had been underwater five to seven minutes. Long, a certified diving instructor, said, There was nothing that prepared me to go down in 12 feet of water and stare at the face of my best friend who was drowned.

Long believes he could have saved his friends life if hed been allowed to carry a small emergency cylinder of compressed air. He was under for less than a minute and a half when I reached and saw him, Long maintains. Kelp entanglement made it immediately impossible to free his buddy, but, he believes, I might have been there in time to have shoved a regulator in his mouth before he took that fateful last gasp.

Why Are Scuba Tanks Banned?

Long argues that California should change its rules and let certified divers carry a thermos-sized air canister for emergencies. The canisters could be sealed so that game wardens could determine if one had been used. I firmly believe if I had one, Rich Baer wouldnt be dead today, Long said.

Harry Morse, a spokesman for the states Department of Fish and Game, said the scuba tank ban is intended to limit the overall harvest and protect the scarce resource. However, Morse told Undercurrent that he agrees the Fish and Game Commission should consider changing regulations to let some qualified rescue divers carry emergency air supplies. Long is currently soliciting ideas on how to approach the Commission, via the blog Dead Fish Divers (http://abalonediver.blogspot.com).

The Commission, which sets regulations and consults with the Department of Fish and Game, considers changes to recreational fishing every three years, and 2009 is one of those years. Its deputy executive director Adrianna Shea says the Commission is currently gathering recommendations from the Department, and will begin a public scoping process in May. At that time, the public can submit recommendations up until August, by letter or e-mail via the Commissions Web site (www.fgc.ca.gov).

As divers travel budgets shrink in these lean economic times, its possible that more will opt for domestic diving along Californias North Coast. This could lead to an increase in what locals refer to as the Sacramento syndrome: After traveling long distances to the shore, some divers are determined to get in the water, no matter how rough the conditions. By the time you get your wetsuit and your vacation house rental, you are spending a significant amount of money, Sergeant Barney said. You cant spend all this money and not come home with something. But that attitude, as we have seen, can kill the unsuspecting abalone diver.

As diver Shaun Stratton of Chico, CA, told the Los Angeles Times, When you throw yourself into the food chain . . . you lose your advantages. You cant just pull yourself out if you get in trouble. Or as gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson once put it, Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always at the top.

Author Larry Clinton, Jr. has brought home plenty of abalone and stories to go with them. He sautes them with his secret recipe and serves them with a chilled Chardonnay, accompanied by background music that his father wrote and performed, such as My Reverie, The Dipsy Doodle and other tunes performed during our last depression.

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