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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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What’s All the Fuss About Over Abalone?

from the February, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Why are people willing to risk their lives scrounging for abalone? After all, these large sea snails are tough to find, tough to clean, and tough to eat unless laboriously hammered to tenderize before cooking. But abalone meat is considered a gourmet delight wherever it’s harvested, including South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. In California, abalone has even more cache than Dungeness crab because it’s so much harder to come by. With its delicate flavor and velvety texture (once properly tenderized), abalone adapts to a variety of cooking styles and preparations.

Abalone shells are also highly prized. The iridescent inner nacre layer of the shell (a.k.a. “mother of pearl”) is used in jewelry, buttons, and as inlays in furniture and musical instruments, like guitars.

These single-shelled marine gastropods were once abundant off of California’s coast and were harvested commercially until annual harvests exceeded the rate of re-population. By 1996, the total harvest was only five percent of the all-time high and in 1998, the California Department of Fish and Game closed the commercial industry. Now, only farmed abalone is commercially available for restaurants and specialty shops - - at a price.

Wild abalone can only be harvested by free divers or rock pickers for personal consumption, not for resale. Of the nine native California species, only the red abalone may be taken. The limit is just three a day and 24 a year. Legal abalone must measure at least seven inches in the shell. An eight-inch abalone will feed as many as four people, and a ten-inch or larger abalone is considered a trophy catch. The seven-month season runs from April 1 to November 30, with a break in July.

Because no meat, even Kobe beef, is pricier than abalone, there are illegal hunters and poachers. So it’s common to see Fish and Game officers watching divers with binoculars, and visiting those changing in and out of their wetsuits at their cars or campsites. Last year at my Marin County dive club’s abalone hunt, a game warden gave a ticket to one of our licensed divers who had obtained his abalone legally but had failed to punch his game card. His $500 fine was cut in half when he appeared in court.

Poachers are in for more trouble. The nonprofit watchdog Sonoma Coast Abalone Network reports that in just the first half of 2008, 40 individuals were arrested or taken to court on poaching violations, and the court doesn’t mess around. For example, Californians Michael R. Henrie and Timothy S. Karley were each placed on 12-month probations and fined $1,566 for taking three abalone over the limit. They also had to forfeit their dive gear that was seized on the day of the incident.

P.S. Pacific Abalone Farms of Monterey Bay offers live abalone in the shell for $20 a pound (approximately 40 percent of the weight is meat) and $80 per pound for processed abalone. Order via their Web site (http://abalone.tv). For more information, including a variety of tasty recipes, pick up a copy of The Abalone Book by Peter C. Howorth or The Abalone Lover’s Cookbook by Jeri Siegel and Michael Hill, available at Amazon.com.

- - Larry Clinton, Jr.

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