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.