A Dying Breed 

Diver Joel Roberts worked to save the threatened red abalone from poaching. Then the state made commercial divers an endangered species,and Roberts allegedly became a poacher himself.

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Abalone, so-called gastropod mollusks, are the grandest of all California shellfish. They're peculiar tentacled creatures that grow at a snail's pace: about a half-inch to one inch a year. Because they grow so slowly, it usually takes the mollusks more than a decade to reach sexual maturity. But when full grown, the foot of the Northern California red abalone -- the largest in the world -- can exceed ten inches. Its shells have a psychedelic, metallic-rainbow quality, making them popular as exotic ashtrays or mantle decorations.

When Chinese immigrants first settled on the West Coast in the mid-1800s, they couldn't believe the tasty bounty nestled on Northern California's rocky shoreline. While European émigrés hadn't previously encountered abalone, the mollusk had been long considered a seafood delicacy in Asian cultures. These Chinese "shore pickers" waited for low tide to pry abalone off the rocks, according to A.L. "Scrap" Lundy, author of The California Abalone Industry: A Pictorial History. The Chinese marveled at the size of the red abalone, which were much larger than the ones in the Orient. "They found the shores just covered with these things," said Lundy, a former abalone diver. "They thought they'd died and went to heaven."

Just what makes the mollusks such a delicacy is not easily put into words. "It's a really unique taste," said Christopher Cheung, owner of Oakland's Marica Seafood Restaurant, which serves an abalone crab cake. "It's something for which there's no substitute." The few Bay Area restaurants that serve the shellfish generally buy them from a handful of California farms where abalone are grown in tanks or suspended cages. But the farmed ones don't have the same mystique as the famous red abalone of Northern California. Tank-grown abs tend to be smaller, and lack another key ingredient: rarity. "What makes diamonds special or sapphires or rubies?" asks John Duffy, assistant executive director of the state Fish and Game Commission. "It's the human psyche."

The early Chinese shore pickers would dry out abalone and send it to Asia -- one year shipping as much as four million pounds, according to Lundy. And in 1895, a Japanese-American salmon fisherman came across the red abalone bonanza near Monterey. He contacted a Tokyo businessman who later set up an elaborate diving operation based at Whalers Cove, three miles south of Carmel. "That was the founding of commercial abalone diving in California," Lundy said.

But the fishermen had to ship their entire harvest to Asia because white westerners wouldn't touch the stuff. It's easy to understand why. It's slimy and rubbery if not prepared right -- like chewing on a neoprene diving glove. Though abalone boasts a subtle, not overwhelming taste for a sea morsel, Americans objected to the chewing power required to bite the stuff. The Japanese tried to entice locals to eat the mollusk by slipping it into chowder or salads, but nothing worked. Enter Monterey restaurant owner Ernest "Pop" Doelter. About a decade after the export ban, Doelter discovered that if you pounded the hell out of the abalone's muscular foot and then breaded and fried it, the mollusk became tender and tasty enough for local palates. "That's when the white folks went for it," Lundy said.

For reasons apparently more racial than environmental, state officials put restrictions on the fishery during the heyday of Chinese harvesting, and again in 1913 when the Legislature shut down the Japanese trade by making it illegal to export the shellfish. Cabrillo College history teacher Sandy Lydon said xenophobic politicians of the time argued that the foreigners were exterminating a resource they ironically described as "valuable and delicious."

When commercial pressure to fish the state's waters mounted, the focus was on the state's southern coast, which was warmer, calmer, and less dangerous, thus more popular with fishermen. Duffy said the commercial fishing industry never pushed to open the northern coastline because it could find plenty of abalone from Monterey to the Mexican border. Except for a brief time during World War II, the Northern California coastline from the Golden Gate Bridge to Oregon always has been off limits to commercial abalone fishing.

But overharvesting wasn't a problem initially because boats were slow and gear heavy. Abalone divers wore old-fashioned underwater metal helmets connected to an air hose, making diving strenuous and tedious. Even after World War II, there were only between 30 and 40 licensed divers in the state, Lundy said.

So the state basically left the industry alone. For decades, the only restrictions governed size (minimum 7 3/4 inches in diameter), seasons (fishing permitted from April 1 to June 30 and August 1 to November 30) and hours (nighttime diving was not allowed). As recently as 1990, divers could harvest as many abalone as they wanted.

Ultimately, though, faster boats and lighter diving gear attracted more people to the profession, and by 1975, there were 499 licensed commercial abalone divers in California. So in the mid-1970s, the Department of Fish and Game capped the number of licensed divers and devised its "two for one" policy to force attrition. Two old abalone divers had to give up their licenses before one new diver could get licensed.

By the time Roberts obtained his commercial fishing permit in a mid-1980s Fish and Game lottery, fishermen in Half Moon Bay warned him he could never make a living because the area's waters already had been picked clean. In an interview with Surfer magazine, Roberts recalled that locals cheekily suggested to the lithe, young diver one suicidal alternative: the Farallon Islands, where great white sharks roamed in search of succulent seals.

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