SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2001


everything you wanted to now about abalone but were afraid to ask

by Lynn Lee

The first people of Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands call them by many different names, among them gaalahlyan, galgaahliiyaang and galguuhlkyan. In Haida legend, it is said that the northern abalone descended from the northwestern toad during k'áy gang, the "Time of the Raven."

For thousands of years, they harvested northern abalone for food along rocky intertidal shores all around Haida Gwaii. They were traditionally harvested by hand picking animals exposed in the intertidal at low tides and by spearing animals down to six feet below the water surface.

Traditionally, the two-pronged seafood spear, kíit'úu, was made by lashing (using spruce root twine) two sharpened pieces of huckleberry stem to each side of a long pole made of spruce or red cedar. Collection of abalone using this spear required practice and skill. If the animal was speared and not twisted off the rock in the same motion it might adhere to the rock with its strong foot and be hard to retrieve, if the animal was speared too lightly, it might be knocked off the rock and fall away to depths beyond reach. Once in hand, the foot of the abalone was removed and eaten raw - sometimes the gonads, ts'iikál, were also eaten. Abalone shell was used for decoration and currency, although Skidegate Haida preferred to use the shell of gwúlxa, the California red abalone, to the indigenous northern abalone.

To science, they are marine snails of the Phylum Mollusca, taxonomically Classed Gastropoda, literally translated as "stomach foot" - quite a culinary distinction. Their scientific name is Haliotis kamtschatkana. Abalone are prevalent throughout the northeastern Pacific Ocean, found from the northern tip of Sitka Island in Alaska, south throughout British Columbia, and down through the states of Washington, Oregon and California, and into the Baja. They are also the northernmost species of all the haliotids (over 90 species are described worldwide.)

In Canada, they are commonly known as the "northern" abalone and in the United States, they are called "pinto" for their mottled white appearance.In the waters of BC, Alaska and Washington, northern abalone are most abundant and do not share their space with other abalone species. In California, they share waters with the red, pink, white, black, green, threaded and flat abalone.

Divers surveying abalone sites.

The dynamics of abalone populations remain an enigma to science. They are a mysterious species, they are difficult to age, individuals growth rates vary wildly depending on conditions where they live, their reproductive success rate is not known, their survival rate through different life stages is unknown and they like to keep people guessing about how long they live.

For thousands of years, northern abalone populations co-existed with the voracious sea otter, a formidable predator that can eat one-third of its body weight a day. Although it seems a contradiction, they lived together in a harmony of balance. The relationships are complex and not fully understood, but in general terms, abalone provided sea otters with one of a kaleidoscope of invertebrate and fish food sources and sea otters provided abalone and other creatures with ample kelp forests for shelter, food and reproduction by controlling populations of grazing sea urchins.

About 100 years ago, the sea otter was hunted to extinction along the shores of Haida Gwaii. In the wake of their absence, sea otter prey species, including abalone and red sea urchins, thrived and multiplied. Over time, the subtidal extent of kelp beds decreased as sea urchin grazing proceeded unabated. About 50 years after the sea otter disappeared, another predator arrived, armed with funny looking rubber suits, masks and prying bars. Abalone populations succumbed under commercial harvesting pressure. At first, the commercial harvest took hundreds and thousands at a time, then starting in 1976, hundreds of thousands were processed year after year. In three short years, the abundance of abalone along the BC coast was reduced by a rough estimate of 60 to 90%, marking the beginning of the collapse of BC's northern abalone population.

Today, northern abalone live with the natural dangers of hungry cabazons and wolf eels ­ fish with nightmare inspiring faces ­ stealthy sun stars, Pacific octopus, rock crabs, and ravens and river otters at low tide. The generally sedentary lifestyle of the abalone is disturbed when they do a little break dance to run from voracious sunflower stars! Less naturally, the odd rubber-suited poacher adds additional challenge to the survival of the species.

On April 23, 1999, the BC northern abalone earned the great distinction of being the first-ever Canadian marine invertebrate to be designated a "threatened" species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). No other spineless marine creature will ever fill those shoes! In official terms, this means that the species is "likely to become endangered if limiting factors are not reversed".

Today, northern abalone survive in numbers much reduced by many factors, man-made and environmental ­ the short and sad history of commercial fishing, large-scale illegal fishing following abalone fishery closure in 1990, decline in rocky shore kelp bed areas since elimination of the sea otter, changing ocean currents and temperatures. Whatever the combination of factors, the accelerated decline of the abalone population has largely been a consequence of their value as a commodity in world economic markets.

The future of BC's northern abalone is in the hands of local communities to respect and value beyond monetary returns. Abalone are part of tradition and culture, ways of being and living with respect for the natural world ­ they are a vital part of a healthy marine community, a natural treasure.

abalone photo - Lynn Lee :: diver photo - Bart DeFreitas

SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2001