The Bayou Swamis had people dancing to zydeco at Fort Bragg’s 24th Annual Abalone Cook-Off last October, but even the band’s squealing accordion couldn’t lift the Mendocino County gathering’s grim mood.
Abalone is California’s rarest seafood delicacy and holds an almost mystical allure for many Californians. Stalking, preparing and feasting on abalone has long drawn people together on the California coast in a primal ritual that’s not easily given up.
Decades back, adventurous cognoscenti could slosh into the surf from the Tijuana Sloughs to the Oregon border and pluck species of this giant snail from submerged rocks. Scuba divers found the pickin’ even easier. A commercial industry thrived.
Longer ago, even before the first Spanish mast appeared off the California coast, Native Americans picked abalone from tide pools for food. Some tribes called them the sea’s “First Creatures,” while others spun tales about a spiritual being called “abalone woman,” anthropologists say.
In foggy, redwood-shaded mountain hamlets and on dirt roads cutting through oak-covered hills, abalone shells adorn fence posts, gates and porches — talismans evoking the state’s more pristine hunter-gatherer past.
Coastal tribes crafted fishhooks and jewelry from their almost psychedelically iridescent inner shells — a practice that New Age hobbyists and high-end jewelry makers continue. Homage, in fact, can be found statewide. Just inside the Los Angeles Music Center’s Mark Taper Forum, a 60-foot wall mesmerizes concert-goers with the glimmer of 58,000 glimmering abalone shell tiles.
Over the years, however, disease, pollution and a global appetite for the tenderized “foot” of the mollusks ravaged abalone populations. Gradually, the state prohibited taking black, white and other species. By 1997, the state commission that oversees fish and wildlife had limited abalone hunting to divers without scuba gear in the waters north of the San Francisco Bay, and made it illegal for recreational divers to sell the meat.
A spy-vs.-spy-like war between game wardens and sophisticated poaching rings ensued, as red abalone populations along the Northern California coast stabilized. This allowed a passionate subculture of free divers to continue hunting and eating abalone — a dangerous, delicious tradition that has, in many cases, been passed down through generations.
But in recent years, researchers have found that a confluence of factors almost certainly linked to climate change — a “warm water blob” edging down from Alaska, a sea-heating El Nino effect — is ravaging red abalone populations in the waters off Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
A few days before the 2017 Cook-Off, scientists from California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended that the commission step in again, this time to keep the thousands of adventurers who buy abalone diving licenses each year from hunting until the mollusk’s population recovers — if it ever recovers.
So it might have struck some as injudicious for California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Cynthia Catton, who had advocated for the diving ban, to walk amid the adventurers and gourmands in the butter- and garlic-scented atmosphere of the cook-off last fall.
Yet there she was, strolling among the stalls where Sacramento police officers challenged dreadlocked Santa Cruz-area Burning Man types and almost two dozen other teams with abalone recipes ranging from the aggressively artisanal — “garnished with toasted Mendocino seaweed” — to the traditional favorite: thinly sliced, pounded to tenderness, battered in crushed crackers (some swear by saltines) and pan fried.
The crisis, Catton explained, kicked into high gear when that mass of warm water likely caused by climate change reached down from Alaska. Then the El Nino weather pattern came along, further warming the water and depleting it of the nutrients that keep algae, including the coast’s kelp forests, healthy.
With this key food supply diminished, the purple urchin, a baseball-sized invertebrate that normally co-exists with abalone and other sea life, developed a bigger appetite and a bigger set of beaklike teeth to go with it. “They’re like goats,” Catton said. “They’ll eat anything.” One booth at the cook-off displayed an effigy created by a volunteer to vent frustration: a beach ball-sized sea urchin covered with ominous purple spikes.
The abalone, in turn, have been starving, the big muscular foot that epicureans covet shrinking within the swirling iridescence of their inner shells.
To fight the predators, activists have concocted countermeasures, including an armada of giant vacuums to suck up the berserking urchins. And researchers at places such as UC Davis’ laboratory in Bodega Bay, where Catton works, have been urgently studying ways to encourage abalone reproduction and revive kelp forests.
But the sex life of abalone is an intricate and delicate affair, and scientists’ brows furrowed for many years before sorting out the biochemical puzzle of how it works. Even as answers emerged, the fragile alchemy between larvae, sperm and the subaquatic currents stymied entrepreneurs intent on harnessing aquaculture techniques to cash in on demand for the delicacy.
By the 1980s, science and cultivation practices coalesced to improve abalone farming, and sales of the coveted meat continue to grow. Last year, the organizers of Mendocino’s culinary event allowed contestants to use farmed abalone along with wild abalone they and their friends had “popped” from coastal waters.
RISK AND REWARD
Most of the people at the cook-off seemed focused on sampling the culinary offerings while they still had the chance — and savoring the requisite tales of diver daring that no doubt add to abalone’s renowned flavor.
The risk is not insignificant: At least nine divers died seeking abalone off the Northern California coast in 2016 alone. Heart attacks get most. Then there’s drowning. Shark attacks are rare, but abalone divers are more likely than anyone else to get bitten in California’s waters.
Larry Keck, a Bay Area chef who was passing out paper cups of his wasabi-accented abalone, said he’s been cooking the shellfish for 44 years. He gave up diving 35 years ago.
“It’s cold and there’s a lot of dark things in the water that scare me,” he said.
Yoshi Endo of San Jose has been shrugging off the dangers of diving for over 20 years. He stood watch over an offering that included the “caviar and guts” of the abalone.
“It’s Japanese tradition,” he said. “Eat everything; don’t waste anything.”
Outside another stall, Andrew Casteel, the owner of Laughing Monk Brewery, near where Candlestick Park once stood, said he continued to dive. His team’s offering had been braised for hours with Chinese wine, craft wheat beer, shitake mushrooms and wild boar and served over cornbread.
“The taste is so unique,” he said, “it’s worth risking your life.”
And Casteel, speaking loudly to be heard over the raucous Bayou Swamis, said that he can’t wait to introduce his toddler son to the abalone tradition.
But many devotees fear that California has seen its last abalone dives. In December, the State Fish and Game Commission followed the advice of Catton and other researchers and voted to cancel the abalone season that would have begun this spring. There’s no guarantee of when, if ever, divers will be allowed again to prowl California’s waters in search of this fabled prey.