SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2001


Gunny Sacks and Inner Tubes

by Charlotte Tarver

The first time I saw abalone they were in a gunny sack carried by my grandfather. Water dripped through the bottom of the heavy bag onto the back steps of our house in San Diego, California. Grandpa looked pleased standing there in shorts and rubber boots. That morning he and my dad had followed the tide out on to a rocky point. They crawled along the slippery, kelp-covered reef looking for abalone in the cracks and crannies under rocks and ledges. Their only tool was an ab iron made out of an old car leaf spring. They would slip the iron's flattened end under an unsuspecting abalone before it had a chance to grip the rock with its foot. As the tide was coming in, they could each pick a dozen abalone. Our family ate a lot of seafood, all caught or gathered from the nearby ocean and to us abalone was a succulent treat.

When I was older, I remember a number of excursions with my dad where we scrambled down steep sandstone cliffs to prime abalone areas to hand-pick from the rocks. Later, as a teenager, my friends and I would skin dive to gather abs in the kelp beds just outside the surf line. We swam along the reefs towing an inner tube with a piece of net strung across its top to hold the abalone. Once we spotted a good site, we took turns diving and shared a face mask and ab iron. Skin diving was tiring work and we would be beat after a couple of hours.

But, gathering the abs was the easy part. Preparing them for eating began with the tedious, time-consuming task of thinly slicing the hard and slippery meat into steaks. Once sliced, the steaks were pounded paper-thin using a mallet. Most often the steaks were dipped in beaten eggs, rolled in cracker crumbs then quickly fried in hot oil or grease - they were a melt-in-your mouth delicacy. Our parents were always pleased to see abalone coming through the door.

I have a friend, Don, who is 86 years old. Don was born in Laguna Beach, California, where his grandparents had moved in the mid-nineteenth century. Their family food-fished year-round and abalone was part of their regular diet. Like my grandfather, his family would follow the tide out on rocky points and hand-pick from the reefs.

As a boy, Don gathered abalone for the table and sometimes to trade, especially during the depression years of the 1930's. With other kids he would row out through the surf in a small skiff to the kelp beds. Using a glass box made in their high school woodshop class, they would look for abalone. When some were spotted, the kids would skindive with their ab irons strapped to their wrists. No face mask, no fins, and no wet suits were used. They dove to the bottom and felt around for the abalone spotted through the glass box. Two or three abs could be picked on one dive. A good day brought in a few dozen abalone. They would clean out a ledge on one weekend and the abs would be back on it by the next weekend.

Even back then, there were limits on the number and size of the abalone taken. There was strict enforcement. Boys like Don in their boats were easy to spot. The California Fish and Game Department wardens simply cruised the main highway which ran along the coast. The wardens (locally called a "gamey") knew the location of all the ab beds. They would spot a boat and wait until the kids rowed back in. When the kids came hiking up the steep cliffs, there was the Warden waiting to count and measure the abs. One time Don saw the gamey watching, he hid his abs in a tide pool and climbed up the cliff with a bag full of rocks!

In Southern California four species of abalone were commercially harvested. About 90% of the food- fishery harvest was made up of green and yellow abalone. The balance was made up by the pink or corrugated abalone, which was rarer and was the choicest due to its tenderness. The black abalone was considered too tough to eat and only harvested to sell as bait to lobster fishermen.

Once abundant along the Pacific coast from Baja California to Alaska, by 1975 abalone was scarce in shallow waters. Few people were able to hand-pick them on low tides and you wouldn't see young kids wearing face masks swimming along the kelp beds towing an inner tube. Most people who were picking abalone wore scuba gear and dove in deeper water. As time went by limits were lowered and the seasons shortened. Poaching became a significant problem. A commercial fishery for several species of abalone still occurs from Santa Barbara Channel north.
Currently there are eight species of abalone found in the waters of the North Pacific ranging from Baja California toAlaska. California has seven of the species: red, black, green, white, pink, pinto and threaded. Only the red abalone continues with a population healthy enough to allow a limited sport fishery north of San Francisco Bay. The numbers of all other species are too low to allow any harvest and the white abalone is an endangered species. Poaching has always been a problem and is the major reason for the continued decline of abalone along the entire Pacific Coast.

Today, only shoreline picking by hand or skin diving is allowed. No scuba gear or surface applied air diving is allowed. There is a daily limit of four abalone and the legal minimum size is 7 inches. A commercial fishery on the giant red abalone existed until January 2000. Ab irons are the only tool allowed to harvest abalone. The iron size is strictly regulated (no more than 36 inches long, and no less than 1/16 inch thick). The California Fish and Game Sport Fishing regulations gives detailed directions on how to use an ab iron: "The way to pop an ab is to slide the iron between the foot and the rock, then carefully lift the handle so the end of the iron acts as a fulcrum. Avoid cutting off the foot. Abalone have no blood clotting mechanism, so if cut when pried off the rock (12% of the time) the animal will die."
Abalone is available in fresh seafood markets for US $45 per pound and they are still on menus in expensive restaurants. This supply comes from 'farmed' abalone with operations located in California and other parts of the world.

California has an aggressive abalone enhancement program that plants hatchery-reared juveniles in key habitat. As well, adult spawners are transplanted to depleted areas to help in the stock recovery. Much of the enhancement is done in marine protected areas, such as the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. Even with these programs it will take decades to restore abalone to historic levels.

Haida Gwaii

I moved to Haida Gwaii in 1976. Within a few weeks of my arrival, friends took me to South Moresby to gather abalone. What a thrill it was to be out on the rocks again, slipping and sliding along the shoreline, parting the kelp - on an Easter egg hunt for abs. At the end of the day we had a wonderful meal of pinto abs in the shell cooked in a steaming bed of bull kelp over a hot beach fire. Since that first abalone picking trip, I've gone on many low tide food gathering expeditions.

The old phrase "when the tide's out, the table's set" describes food gathering along the rich Pacific coast from California to Alaska. Like all coastal people, Islanders gather most edible inter-tidal species. It is a good feeling to get food fresh from the sea and not from an intermediary like a grocery store.

Years ago, when picking abalone was a normal part of the food gathering cycle, we would head off to the best abalone sites on the lowest tides of spring and summer. Not much diving was needed as the water was too cold and besides, it was just as easy to pick abs by hand from the rocks. It was a rubber boot and rolled up shirt-sleeved kind of affair where one usually ended up with a soaker and wet clothes. You got really wet when the biggest abs were a shoulder-deep reach from your fingertips. Most people only gathered during two or three tidal series per year. We took our catch home, ate plenty, then froze or smoked the rest. There was no waste. Year after year, we could return to the same area and the abs would be there in abundance.

Then, suddenly in 1990, with little warning from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans the lid slammed shut on the abalone fishery. People were shocked. There had been 20 years of commercial harvesting along the coast with over one third of the harvest being taken from the waters of Haida Gwaii. Few felt that local food harvesting had been a part of the declining abalone population but many recognized that widespread poaching by a few had a great effect on the decline.

With the decline of the Haida Gwaii stock it may be 10 or 20 years before abalone numbers will be high enough to allow people to harvest and eat them again with relish. My grandchildren may never have the opportunity to go on abalone picking expeditions as I have, as my grandfather did.

I often question my role in the harvesting and decline of the abalone stock.
What part did I play, or did I play a part in their decline? Hopefully, someday with a measured and responsible approach the stocks will return to historic levels and we can once again pick and eat abalone. ·


Post Script

The isle of Guernsey in the English channel has a population of approximately 60,000. Guernsey is smaller than Louise Island. The people of Guernsey gather food from the sea. They fish, collect seaweed, shellfish, and abalone. The abalone of Guernsey are known as "ormers" and they are a prized delicacy.

For hundreds of years local people hand-picked ormers on low tides. In 1841, the local newspaper reported a record number of ormers picked on the morning tide at 80,000.

Today the abalone population remains healthy, has good recruitment and a limited sport fishery is allowed but there has never been a commercial fishery and diving for ormers is illegal. ·

SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2001