Abalone pickin' time

If you walk into a sushi bar and order awabi, chances are you are going to shell out some coin, as awabi is sushi made from a dinner plate-sized sea snail — the abalone, or "sea ear" — a distant relative of octopus, clams and squid, that has a "foot" about an inch thick and the size of your hand, and is worth as much as $60–$100 each.

Abalone are in the family Haliotidae and the Haliotis genus. The most primitive of mollusks, they originated in Cambrian Period 500 million years ago. On the West Coast they are found from the Aleutian Islands to Pt. Conception north of Santa Barbara.

Abalone is prized for the unique flavor of its edible gray, tan, or even blue "foot," which in the Orient is believed to have aphrodisiac powers, and for its mother-of-pearl inner shell. Species are found around the world, but most prefer cold ocean waters — off New Zealand, South Africa, North American Pacific coast, Tasmania and Australia — along a rocky shoreline out to depths of 300 feet.

West Coast Indians were harvesting abalone when the Spanish arrived. Recreational fishery regulations began in 1911. Up until the 1970s, Californians enjoyed no annual limits on several species of abalone: red, pink, green, white (endangered species), black, flat, pinto and threaded. Picking was allowed south of San Francisco, no tags were required and there was a thriving commercial fishery along the coast. Today only red abalone is legal.

Red abalone reach sexual maturity in 2–3 years and legal size (7 inches) in 6–12 years. They can live up to 15 years. The shell has several respiratory holes for breathing. Big shells go 9 inches across, and the largest ever caught was said to be a foot across.

Abalone are very prolific broadcast spawners, producing 3 million eggs at a time. Twenty-four hours after fertilization, a trophophore larva develops, which hides among the rocks.

Along the California coast, regulation of commercial fishery began in 1901. The commercial fishery peaked in 1950s and '60s, when 4–5 million pounds a year were harvested.

All commercial harvesting for wild abalone closed in 1997.

In Japan, abalone are cultivated commercially and over 16,000 metric tons are harvested annually. Commercial abalone for restaurants is produced via mariculture in the US.

Abalone fishing south of San Francisco was closed in 1997. California's Sonoma-Mendocino County coast has one of the last viable populations of red abalone in the world, but continued poaching has put great pressure on these dinner-plate-sized mollusks. Pickers look for red abalone in rocky coastal areas with abundant kelp, which is what the big sea snails feed on.

The abalone sport season, open only north of San Francisco Bay, runs from April 1 through June 30 and from Aug. 1 through Nov. 30. The minimum legal size is a shell 7 inches across. There is no commercial fishery for abs, no scuba diving for abs, and the limits have dropped from 10 to three per day, down from 100 per year to 24 — and only red abalone are legal.

You must also pry the abs off a rock with a metal abalone iron as you either walk among rocks or swim offshore and free dive, placing your catch in a float tube, or an ocean kayak.

As soon as you climb out of the water you must attach a tag on each abalone through a respiration hole in the shell and mark the date and place on your report card accordingly.

When the tides are low, pickers and divers swarm the coast, competing with octopus, crabs, lobster, sea stars, wolf eel, bat ray, mink and sea otters for abalone.

One reason for a decline in abalone south of San Francisco is the return of the sea otter: For some reason, probably the abundance of great white sharks, sea otters have never come back north of the Golden Gate, resulting in an abnormal abundance of abalone in those waters. In 2006, 32,500 licensed fishermen took 264,000 abs and spent $10 million along the north coast.

Boats, planes, surveillance, citizen volunteer watchers and abalone checkpoints are all used by the Department of Fish and Game to control human poachers. The coast is large, wardens are scarce, and when the tides are minus, pickers are everywhere. Sonoma County has a very active citizen volunteer watch network, SCAN, a model of citizens working with wardens to control poaching.

On May 8, 2008, working on a documentary, my son and I videoed wardens manning a checkpoint at Boonville in Mendocino County. High tide was about 9 a.m., and by 9:30 the parking lot of the County Fairgrounds was jumping with carloads of abalone pickers and divers on their way home, letting wardens see their abalone, sea urchins, periwinkles, and rockfish.

According to Lt. Dennis McKiver, about 100 cars were checked in a three-hour period, resulting in 33 citations issued for limit overages, undersized abalone, prematurely removing abs from the shell and not tagging abs in possession.

Probably the strangest violation of the day was a guy with some kelp. It is legal to harvest kelp, but only 10 pounds a day. This guy had 47 pounds, stuffed into a plastic garbage bag.

And this was a weekday.

On one weekend in 2007, DFG operated two vehicle checkpoints in Boonville and Highway 1 in Sonoma County, inspecting a total of 552 vehicles. Wardens issued a total of 107 citations and confiscated 144 illegal abalone. Around the same time, two poachers south of the Golden Gate were nabbed with 122 black abs — an illegal place and protected species. At Fort Bragg, a commercial fishing boat was found with over 400 abalone stashed in the hold.

Wild abalone cannot be sold commercially in California, yet they can fetch between $60 and $100 each on the black market, depending on the size. Because abalone are so valuable, abalone poachers are increasingly organized, and often combine dealing illegal abs with dealing drugs.

"Operation Hat Trick," nabbed a ring of seven poachers working the Sonoma coast: Divers had several changes of gear; buddies and friends all bought fishing licenses. The purloined abalone were being sold out of a San Jose beauty parlor. One of California Fish and Game Wardens Special Operations Undercover Unit posed as a customer having her hair done during a time when a fresh shipment came in, to be able to get the goods on the sellers.

Sitting in on the briefing for the takedown, the SOU leader for "Operation Hat Trick," said, "When you go in, look for money — because these guys have not made a deposit in months. They should be loaded. Look everywhere, even in their underwear drawers."

And guess where the piggy bank containing $11,000 in cash was stashed?

Penalties for exceeding the bag limit on abalone, etc. are not huge, but by taking the time to get the goods on a group of people working together to sell abalone, you have a felony conspiracy case which translates into thousands of dollars of fines, confiscated gear, loss of fishing licenses for years, and jail time.

In June of 2006, Bob's Sushi House at San Francisco's Fishermen's Wharf area was caught by SOU buying illegal wild abalone. Today Bob's is closed and bums sleep on the steps of what was once an upscale eatery where awabi was a house special.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.