Dying for Abalone: Why a California Delicacy Has Become Lethal

A 56-year-old San Francisco man (still unidentified until the family is contacted) drowned while diving for abalone near Mendocino on Sunday, according to Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat. It’s the eighth abalone death of the Northern California season, which is on the high end of average — most years there are five or six.

To the uninitiated, it seems a bizarre phenomenon. Although hobbies like surfing and traditional ocean fishing certainly come with risks, abalone diving is laden with extra hazards these days because California’s historic obsession with the coastal gastropod conflicts with our storied eco-friendliness.

[jump] Since red abalone (the species of the tasty giant sea snail most common in Bay Area waters) are classified as threatened, protections well beyond mere catch limits are in place. For starters, it’s illegal to fish for abalone using SCUBA gear or any other kind of “compressed air apparatus.” You can slap on a snorkel, but you’ve got to make the dive using just the air in your lungs.

As a result, fishers can’t just leisurely paddle along and pry abalone from the rocks as they please. This saves the abalone from being sitting ducks — or snails, as it were. When fishers manage to find their quarry, they have to stop and measure its shell to make sure that it’s not immature, because the law also forbids preying on abalone that’s too young. Only then can fishers do the actual work of prying the little suckers off and swimming back.

It’s possible to respect these laws and still get to shore with your catch. Hundreds of people do it every year. But also every year, a handful don’t make it. Because they overestimated how much air they had left, or because they dived too often instead of resting (the “goal-oriented” mindset of abalone retrieval sometimes leads divers to exhaust themselves), or because an accident happened — entanglement in seaweed is not uncommon — and cost them life-saving seconds.

(We should note, however, that we can’t speculate about what might have happened to the most recently deceased.)

Divers must wear wetsuits in the bay waters, which are chilly even in summer, and the insulation makes them slightly buoyant, so they compensate with weighted belts that return them to “neutral” buoyancy. But then the wetsuit gets wet (naturally) and heavy, and 10 or 15 feet down you’re suddenly no longer “neutral” — you’re sinking. Diving belts are designed to be shed safely and instantly with only one hand, but some people don’t want to abandon their expensive equipment to the ocean floor even in an emergency.

“Big hunks of raw lead are fairly pricey” says David Osorio, a diving safety officer with California Fish and Game.

Hubris plays a role, too.

People with little experience will dare choppy seas, or even give themselves heart attacks by diving when they know they shouldn‘t. (While researching abalone deaths last year, I was “treated” to a game warden’s anecdote about watching a lone diver keel over seconds after resurfacing.) There’s no reason abalone expeditions have to be fatal, but, inevitably, some turn out to be anyway.

“Most people are just not disciplined enough,” Osorio says.

And yet, Californians don’t want to give up the undersea hunt, even in the face of cautionary tales and environmental protections that, in effect, protect the shellfish in part by making it more dangerous for divers.

Catching and eating abalone is a California tradition, long predating the arrival of Europeans. In the heady days of the last century, before the present prohibitions, folks could scoop them up as they please and eat hardy.

For some, it’s unthinkable not to keep the tradition alive. And so they hold their breath.

(Abalone season officially closes on the 30th, meaning this Thanksgiving weekend will be the last opportunity this year to take the plunge. And the risk.)

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories