Abalone: The Remarkable History and Uncertain Future of California’s Iconic Shellfish

by Jen Kalt

This year’s widespread wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and other extreme weather events are a harsh reminder of our tendency toward short-term thinking. Taking the long view isn’t easy for a culture that  colonized California less than two centuries ago – a blip in time for the original inhabitants, who managed much of the landscape with fire until it was declared a crime in the 1930s. 

For non-indigenous Americans, history is often limited to a few generations. Anyone who remembers California in the mid-20th Century remembers the abundance of abalone. Similar to old-timers’ stories of rivers so full of fish you could walk across their backs, tales are told of collecting abalone by the dozens without even getting your feet wet. 

Author and ecological historian Ann Vileisis’ latest book explores the abalone’s trajectory from superabundance during the Gold Rush to nearly-extinct in 2020. Combining information gathered from interviews, oral history, archaeological texts, and scientific research, Abalone: The Remarkable History and Uncertain Future of California’s Iconic Shellfish recounts the “human love affair” with the abalone that dates back at least 13,000 years. 

Indigenous Californians have used the shells as food, tools, and ceremonial regalia since time immemorial. On the North Coast, ceremonial dresses feature polished abalone shells hung so the shells “sing” when dancers sway (for more on this, see the Northwest Coast Regalia Stories Project at www.nativewomenscollective.org). Changes in sizes of abalone fragments in middens point to fluctuating populations over many centuries, but nothing as drastic as the boom-and-bust cycles first caused by 18th Century fur traders, and later by waves of newcomers from the Gold Rush to the present.

During California’s Gold Rush, some Chinese immigrants began exporting dried abalone back home, where it had been highly prized for centuries. In the mid-19th Century, abalone had become so scarce in China that only the wealthy were legally allowed to harvest it. In the 1880s, when anti-Chinese attitudes peaked, Chinese boats were banned in California waters. 

In the late 1890s, a new industry sprung up to export abalone to Japan, where traditional fishing practices had recently been disrupted, leading to overharvesting there. In 1899, Monterey County adopted the first abalone fishing regulations, launching more than a century of controversy, much of which shifts blame from one group of “outsiders” to another – including sea otters.

Before EuroAmericans colonized California, Russian fur trappers had tremendous impacts on abalone populations. They decimated sea otter populations along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California, virtually eliminating the abalone’s main predators. By the mid-19th Century, abalone populations boomed in absence of the sea otters. 

Once sea otters began recovering along the Central California coast, the commercial abalone industry was booming, resulting in heated conflict between factions. Some favored sea otter protection, while others favored sea otter exclusion so the abalone harvest could continue without competition.

Today, this once-abundant delicacy is again threatened by over-harvesting, but warming ocean temperatures is a more ominous threat to the abalone’s survival. The recent closure of what remained of the red abalone fishery sent shock waves across coastal Northern California. 

Like so many natural resources in the West, abalone management was misguided by the static views of nature found by early EuroAmericans. Vileisis engagingly describes early misperceptions and scientific discoveries that have led to a better understanding of mistakes made during our long relationship with abalone. This riveting account features biology and ecology of abalone as well as human history spanning three centuries of ingenuity, controversy, and underwater adventure. 

You can listen to an interview with Ann Vileisis about the remarkable history and uncertain future of abalone by finding the June 27, 2020 edition of the EcoNews Report wherever you listen to podcasts.

Ann Vileisis lives in Port Orford, Oregon, and is also the author of Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America’s Wetlands and Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get it Back. More at https://www.annvileisis.com/