Monday, October 15, 2007

Abalone: delicious, dangerous, declining (Blog Action Day)

I remember when I was small, watching my mom in the kitchen as she pound-pound-pounded away at the abalone. She would pound it out with a special little hammer into a white circle, then cook it quickly. I don't recall any recipe, just that it was delicious, so good that even incipient vegetarian me would gobble it down. Guess I'm just a fake vegetarian... at least in some instances!

People near my folk's house on California's Mendocino Coast talked about how in the past, into the 1980s, they would just wade into the ocean and pick abalone right off the rocks. Most homes in the area had heaps of abalone shells moldering away in the yard (or at least until a few years ago, when a man came by offering a buck each for them.)

So I started wondering why they aren't just there on the rocks anymore. Too many people? Too many seals? A little research project got underway.

"Abalone are easily overfished." says the California Dept of Fish & Game. "They have slow growth, infrequent reproductive success, vulnerability to fishery-related injuries, high mortality of small animals, and need high densities for successful reproduction."

And it turns out there are lots of different kinds of abalone local to the Mendocino Coast: Haliotis rufescens (red abalone); H. cracherodii (black abalone); H. kamtschatkana (pinto or Northern Abalone); and sometimes H. walallensis (flat abalone.) The only one you are supposed to pick (abalone fishing is called "picking", actually they have to be pried off the rocks with a crowbar, not just "picked") is the red, which is found intertidal to 80 feet. This is the one we all know, with the irridescent inner shell and reddish outer shell and the delicious white "foot". It can actually live to be 40 years old, and the biggest recorded one was 12 5/16 inches long.

The black abalone was most likely the one people used to wade in and pick off the rocks--it lives in the high intertidal zone. Turns out the population of black abalone was being, like all abalone, over picked, but what almost did it completely in was a disease, abalone kidney coccidia or "withering syndrome" which killed off a large part of the population in the 1980s. It is now protected--and anyway, it is also reportedly the least desireable meat. The inside of its shell is very pale, and the outside is black.

The pinto is the tiny little one. It never gets very big, the record was about four inches long. It's also protected. Same with the flat, which is also little.

When out abalone-ing, the rules are that no scuba gear can be used, you may only have three at one time and no more than 24 in a year. Swimming in the ocean is dangerous and cold; that should be protection for the abalone. But poaching is a serious problem. Abalone is tasty and trendy, and worth a lot--really a lot--of money. It's just sitting out there in the ocean, unprotected. And the American tradition is to be bold and take what you want or need---

Not too long ago a poacher was caught with a huge catch of abalone (and they threw the book at him, too.) He was an immigrant, I'm sure he was just a poor man who came here for economic reasons, and was looking to, as Kaiser Cement trucks used to say on them, "Find a need and fill it." Abalone is sitting unprotected out in the ocean, a "thing", an economic opportunity. No need to worry about taking too many, because when it's wiped out, there will always be some other "thing" to make money on.

Up in BC, an area of ocean next to a prison with 24 hour armed guard patrols was studied and found to have more and larger abalone and better reproduction of abalone than in an allegedly protected reserve right next to the prison area. It's the same sad story, people want what they want and if there's a buck to be made, someone will find a way to make it. In his book "Collapse" Jared Diamond wonders what the man who cut the last tree down on Easter Island thought while he did it (with no wood, there were no boats and no escape from the island, let alone fishing or building materials or soil protection--to make a long story short if you don't know it all ready, there were terrible wars and starvation and everyone died and etc.)

I know what he thought: "If I don't get it, someone else will!"

Same with the abalone.

Back to the Dept. of Fish & Game: "These factors (slow growth, infrequent reproductive success, vulnerability to fishery-related injuries, high mortality of small animals, and need for high densities for successful reproduction) limit the ability of abalone to withstand a fishery...Red abalone in northern California are believed to grow slower and reproduce less frequently than those in the south...surveys have revealed few abalone in the 2-5 inch size range, an indication that significant reproduction has not occurred. At Van Damme State Park in the early 1990’s SCUBA surveys found that over 75% of the population was under the legal size compared to only 50% today. " (2005)

Moral: Don't poach (Hey! I never would do that!) Watch for poachers (But I'm not there 24 hours a day!) Don't buy black market abalone (I've never seen it for sale!)

Oh heck, I don't know. I've just written myself into a corner more depressing than the latest issues of "Audubon" and "Sierra" put together.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

'1491' - Getting a sense of the past

'1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus' by Charles Mann

Most of what you find written about pre-conquest "Indians" is broken apart along modern political boundaries. For example, it's hard to get a sense of a culture when part of the culture is written about only in books about Colorado and part of it only in books about Mexico. A great achievement of this book is the ignoring of modern political boundaries and looking at the great sweep of cultures that were here pre-Columbus, pre-smallpox.

This book is important because it talks about something most modern white Americans would rather not talk or think or even know about: Before our European ancestors arrived, the continent was full of people. People of many languages and cultures, as distinctive, complex, and advanced as any in the "old world." Cultures that are now utterly lost.

I still find books about "the Indians" that describe their idyllic, simple life, plucking the fruits of an Eden that only exists in European fantasies. The way our great-great-great grandparents imagined it, and we don't want to hear a different message. In correcting that view, "1491" may be a path back to sanity.

But the book is NOT one of those downer everything-is-doomed Sierra Club magazine books. It's not a bone dry academic book either. It is a fine, journalistic overview of an enormous topic, lively and fascinating reading. It's a big thick book, but I flew right through those pages.

Charles Mann is a journalist covering technology, commerce, and science. His website is at

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Long Term Culture Shock

My Midwestern culture-shock was pretty intense for a while, but even when I think I've gotten used to local behavior, something comes along to amaze me all over again.

I've certainly been aware that one of the Midwestern core values is total irrationality. In the belief system of the locals, it's better to believe whatever you want about global warming or what causes cancer, since the most uninformed person's opinion is just as good as that of the most learned philosopher. More "educated" people, the doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, tend to have a "spiritual path" that also decries modern fantasies like, say, the germ theory of disease. Well, maybe not the doctors. But everyone seems to subscribe to the "thinking makes it so" attitude.

In yesterday's newspaper there is an article about a local eyesore, an old garage in a residential neighborhood. It has also been found to be a menace to public health and safety. The town has been going around with the owner, to get him to tear it down, for seven years. Finally they reached a resolution. But...

One commissioner said (despite seven years worth of evidence) that he "didn't believe" that there was a problem. Therefore, according to his belief system, there is no problem and anyone who says there is obviously is doing something Bad. Evidence is irrelevant. Seven years of work by other commissioners is irrelevant. So he fought having anything done about the property!

Maybe I could call this the "Reagan Effect."