Meandering Angler: Abalone harvest on 5-year pause

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) recently extended the closure of recreational abalone fishing off our coast until 2026, as part of its plan to allow the severely depleted red abalone population to recover.

I remember abalone as a tasty delicacy of my youth and early adulthood, for which we would wait for extremely low tides, rise shortly after midnight, drive for several hours up the coast in the dark, descend steep cliffs onto remote rocky beaches, and wade into the Pacific turned icy cold by the currents that flowed out of Alaska.

In those early days before neoprene wet suits, we wore jeans, sweatshirts and old tennis shoes. Once we reached the waist-deep water among the partially submerged rocks, we’d bend over and reach down to feel around the side and undersides of the rocks for the telltale partially rounded feel of one of these mollusks. I’ve never been so cold as when I was bent over, arm fully extended, while waves broke over me.

If I felt an abalone, I’d use a modified old piece of car shock absorber to pry it off the rock, bring it up to the surface and measure it to make sure it met the size limit. If it did, I’d put in in a burlap gunnysack that I had tied to my waist.

The trick was to find enough legal “abs” to fill the limit before succumbing to hypothermia.

But the adventure didn’t end there. Still numb and exhausted from exposure, we had to rappel back up the cliff with a heavy bag of abalone on our backs. Once we made it back to the car, we could get out of our wet clothes into warm, dry ones, and then make the long drive home, trying not to fall asleep at the wheel.

But the work still wasn’t over. Arriving home, we had to pry the actual abalone creature out of its shell, trim it, slice it and then pound the hell out of it with a mallet so that it was tender enough to douse in a batter of eggs and breadcrumbs so we could fry it in bacon grease. Most of my abalone-fishing friends had their own special recipes. For the most part we all agreed that these tasty saltwater snails were worth all the effort.

With the advent of neoprene west suits and the addition of fins, facemasks and snorkels, abalone wade-and-picking evolved into abalone diving. Then poachers depleted the abalone population. Worse yet, climate change and other factors wiped out large sections of our coastal kelp forests, a vital part of the abalone food chain.

Today the abalone, for which we used to freeze our butts off and expend a great deal of energy, are in great danger. In 2014 the Department of Fish and Wildlife launched a Red Abalone Industry Fishery Management effort toward the adoption of a management plan by 2021. The plan extends a ban on all fishing for abalone until 2026. It also includes efforts already underway to re-establish the kelp forests, sunflower sea stars and other key elements of abalone habitat.

Maybe one day, our grandchildren will be able to wade into the icy waters off our coast and enjoy the experience of picking some of these tasty little critters. But for now we have to hope that the CDFW plan was enacted in time, and will work.

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