Abalone are a species of shellfish (mollusks) related to the familiar bivalves, clams. They have a beautifully iridescent colored shell with a series of holes, 4 – 10 , along the top of the shell. The tasty treasures are scattered off the rugged Washington, Oregon and northern California coasts. Anyone with an appetite for diving in cold and turbulent seas can collect the expensive delicacy but due to commercial overfishing the tasty treats are protected with specific rules. See below.
Many wet-suited abalone divers wade into the surly cold water with an inner tube or body board alongside as a floatation aid. Savvier snail hunters paddle out on sit-on-top kayaks. With their much greater range relative to swimming, the stable boats are ideal abalone diving platforms.
I decide to try my luck and join my guides Sean White and Ron Benkert, a pair of accomplished north coast watermen, for a day of diving for Abs.
First we have to suit up like we're visiting another world. It starts with a thick wetsuit. Next comes a hood that leaves only the mouth, nose, and eyes exposed. Booties go on the feet and gloves on the hands. Then 21 heavy pounds of lead laced onto a belt, necessary to sink all this rubber. Finally flippers, mask, and snorkel complete the outfit. Encased in seven millimeters of neoprene, I can hardly move. Benkert assures me the encumbering gear will be unnoticed in the relative weightlessness of the water.
Jumping onto our kayaks, we paddle a few hundred yards from a popular beach along the Sonoma and Mendocino County coastline.
At our dive site, a small cliff-walled cove within feet of the shoreline, White anchors in the shallow water. We roll off the kayaks. The 50 degree water trickling into the wetsuit shudders its way down my spine. The sensation passes in seconds as the wetsuit does its job, warming the water against my skin. I float motionless on the surface, face down in the water, taking damp breaths through my snorkel, and hoping my racing heart will slow.
I'm uncomfortable. I can't seem to suck enough air through my snorkel. I gasp, and saltwater leaks past my lips and into my mouth. I reflexively swallow. Feeling a bit queasy, I fight for control. I remember White's warning of the previous evening. "Abalone diving isn't for everyone. Some people feel that cold water and say 'enough.' Stay calm, and you'll be all right."
So I do. White swims over to check on me, flashes a jaunty thumbs-up, and points to the bottom. There are a lot of rocks down there, all covered with a fuzzy moss or a ribbon-like grass. Many of the stones are studded with oval protrusions. Abalone!
White shows me the procedure. Arch the back, kick down, glide up to the abalone. Sliding his iron underneath the abalone, he pushes the tip down against the rock, popping the big marine snail free, and then casually swims to the surface for a breath. The entire process takes maybe fifteen seconds. Now it is time for the novice to try.
I swim down and clumsily try to push my iron underneath an abalone, but instead I poke it in the foot. When I try again, I can't wedge the iron beneath it. The abalone is aware something bad is going down. Now it clings to the rock with every muscle fiber. Out of air, I surface. White waves me over to a rock closer to shore. It is barely awash, yet a big abalone is perched right on top. This time the abalone iron glides smoothly between the rock and the snail. An easy push down on the tip of the iron levers the abalone right off.
I carry my treasure over to my kayak, drop it in the hatch, and hang onto the side for a while to catch my breath. Wetsuit or not, the cold water quickly sapped my strength. The reassuringly buoyant kayak seems to hug me back like a security blanket. Rested, I push off confident that when I tire again, I can be safe at home in seconds.
With Benkert pointing the way, we survey an abundance of abalone. Now that I feel at ease in the water, the hardest part is holding out for the big ones. While I'm collecting my last two snails, I pay more attention to my surroundings. Rockfish flit between the rocks or hunker in crevices. Sea stars and urchins litter the bottom. Now that I'm looking, I find there is a lot of interesting marine life to see.
Back on the beach White deftly pries out an abalone, leaving the shell and its beautiful mother of pearl unmarred. Using a knife honed to a razor's edge, White trims off all the dark patches, and then slices the resulting thick and meaty filet into slabs. Each enjoys a massage from a tenderizing mallet. A quick dip in egg wash is followed by a dredge in Italian bread crumbs and it's into the skillet. The golden brown abalone planks get a kiss of lemon juice, a dash of hot sauce. Ah, bliss.
Abalone Harvesting Rules and Regs
Red abalone were once found in abundance along much of the U.S. Pacific coast. Due to previous over-harvesting, populations are only robust enough to allow limited sport collection by free-diving (diving without the aid of SCUBA) in Oregon and California north of San Francisco Bay. Each state has differing regulations. Before setting out on an abalone hunting expedition, check with local fish and game officials to ensure compliance with all pertinent rules. Only Red Abalone may be taken; black, white, pink, and flat abalone are protected by law.
Due to the dangers, novices are encouraged to make their first trips in company with experienced divers.
In California, the season runs from April through November with the exception of July, which is closed. Each abalone diver must have a valid California Sportfishing license, and must purchase an Abalone Permit Report Card which must be returned to the DFG at the end of the year. The daily and possession limits are three each. The annual limit is 24. An abalone must be at least 7 inches long in the longest shell dimension; each diver must have his own measuring device. Abalone irons must meet DFG specifications to prevent injury to undersize specimens. Visit the California Department of Fish and Game website here: www.dfg.ca.gov.
Oregon allows recreational divers to collect one per day and five per year with no seasonal restrictions. As in California, abalone can only be collected using an abalone iron. The minimum size is 8 inches. An Oregon Angling license with a special abalone permit is required. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website can be found at www.dfw.state.or.us/resources/fishing.
Abalone cannot legally be collected in Washington State.