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.


Anonymous said...

Another Mendocino Coast incident shows that abalone's valuable enough to die for. An Oakland, California man died Oct. 17 while going after abalone in a dangerous area that also was undergoing particularly bad wind and waves. Two other divers were rescued by helicopter.

"In the midst of the rescue operation, (Fort Bragg Fire Chief Steve Orsi) requested that Fish and Game personnel respond to the scene for possible abalone violations...He said Coast Guard personnel had notified him that people were stranded on the rocks, and were in possession of more abalone than legally permitted. He said the news was a surprise, because Fish and Game personnel didn't expect that divers would be out in such terrible conditions. He said no law enforcement personnel were on scene to secure any abalone and by the time wardens arrived, the alleged catch had disappeared...The body of Yong Lu, 47, of Oakland, was not recovered until Thursday afternoon." (Ft. Bragg Advocate-News)

My conclusion is that they were out there getting abalone to sell; I could be wrong. But if people want it so badly as to go where the risk is the worst (and the chance of law-enforcement interference the least), is there any hope that the abalone can continue to survive?

Anonymous said...

Withering Syndrome is one reason why the black, and other species of abalone, have declined. In the 1980's people farming abalone brought abalone in from South Africa, Haliotis midae, which were NOT Quarantined!

There is now some evidence that Withering Syndrome arrived with those abalone, and another parasite of abalone - a type of polychaete worm, and then both of these parasites were spread throughout California by abalone farms selling "seed" abalone to other farms. The Dept. of Fish and Game had officers involved in abalone farming and the knowledge of their complicity may have been suppressed, and possibly covered-up.

If you read the literature (available online) then you'll see that the source of Withering Syndrome was and still is (nearly thirty years later) the abalone farms.

Some installed longer pipelines to get colder water which suppresses the growth of the parasite that causes Withering Syndrome. Their effluent keeps re-infecting wild populations and this last Summer many of abalone near Santa Barbara, Ca in 30 feet of water died after the water temperature rose higher than normal. These were green abalone.

Now the black abalone are almost extinct and they are in the process of getting listed as an endangered species. However, if Withering Syndrome is not eliminated in the farms, then all abalone will go extinct except in the farms where the water temperature is controlled.

If this means anything to you, then contact National Marine Fisheries Service and let them know that this needs to be looked into, plus the possible complicity by Fish & Game, and there's already a precedent for eliminating the source. The aquarium in Long Beach had to install a closed system in order to display abalone and their effluent goes into the sewer or is treated before it leaves the aquarium. The farms need to destroy the infected animals they have and/or treat the effluent from their farms! The sea otters will thank you!