The era of abalone-rich waters, retired fishermen recalls collecting daily limit with one dive

Spring 2015

Ken Nielson, a retired commercial fisherman and conservationist, grew up in southern California at a time when marine resources were plentiful and coastal development was minimal. One of his first childhood memories was skindiving and hunting for abalone with Bob Lorhman, a dear childhood friend who would later become his business partner. These formative experiences led both young men to become commercial fishermen and avid abalone sport divers. Their passion for abalone began in the 1950s and lasted until 1997, when overfishing and disease caused the commercial and sport fisheries to close in southern California.

An abalone skindiver in 1950. Photo: Peter Stackpole, Time Inc. 

Nielsen remembers what it was like when abalone numbers were so large that one breath was all it took to get the daily limit of 10. “Abalone were such a big part of our lives. We started diving for them when we were 13-years old and we knew the best places to find them along the coast, from Newport Beach to Oceanside,” Nielsen recalls. The absence of abalone from tidal habitats today is a stark reminder of how prevalent this resource once was. Now, historical insights like Nielsen’s are informing the work of scientists working to restore abalone populations coast-wide.

Prior to a commercial fishery, abalone sustained native people along coastal California and the islands for thousands of years. Large “middens,” deposits of abalone shells indicating human settlement, date back 7,400 years and dot the landscape of coastal California. Abalone shells were also highly prized and traded along routes originating in southern California and Baja California and extending east of the Mississippi River.

In more recent times, abalone attracted commercial and sport fishermen and were a delicacy for beachgoers. The first commercial fisheries originated with Chinese immigrants, who collected abalone from intertidal zones, and then later with Japanese immigrants, who dove for abalone in coastal waters. The Chinese dried and canned abalone for export to Asia; and by 1879, their landings reached over 4.1 million pounds, which prompted overfishing concerns by the State of California. However, it wasn't until 1900 that legislation made it illegal to fish for abalone in shallow water. With the closure of the intertidal fishery, Chinese participation essentially stopped and local Japanese divers took the lead in the abalone industry for several decades before other fishermen entered the commercial fishery.

By the 1950s, the commercial abalone fishery, managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), consisted of 500 permitted fishermen and approximately 60 boats. At its peak in the 1980s, the commercial abalone fishery was worth approximately $10 million, or roughly $28 million in today’s dollars. At this same time, the popularity of skindiving rose, which supported a thriving abalone sport fishery. The red abalone sport fishery that still exists in northern California today was recently valued at $23 million, providing a significant boost for the local economy.

“Abalone were very valuable to the coastal communities in California and beyond. We had so many abalone all the time that we actually traded them for meat at the market,” claimed Nielsen.  “There was this sense that abalone were never going to disappear and we could just keep diving for them.” 

Ken Nielson, owner and operator of the R/V Early Bird II, working on a fish contamination survey for NOAA in southern California. NOAA photo by David Witting.

Despite its abundance, commercial landing data for red abalone started to show signs of the population’s decline in the 1960s. Fishermen shifted from one abalone species to the next—pink, green, white, and black—and they all declined sequentially. Landings were only at 4% of their historical peak in 1996—the last year of the commercial abalone fishery before it was closed by CDFW.

At this same time, abalone were experiencing large die-offs from Withering Syndrome, a disease that causes the abalone’s characteristic muscular “foot” to wither and atrophy. “After the commercial abalone fishery closed we were out in the water and saw large numbers of abalone on the ocean bottom tumbling back and forth in the surge. It was heartbreaking,” said Nielsen. “We thought the abalone may possibly bounce back after a few years, but when we saw what this disease was doing, we had the sense that it was going to be much more difficult for them to recover—though still possible, of course.”

To make recovery a reality, NOAA Fisheries and partners are taking a multi-faceted approach to abalone restoration that incorporates current knowledge of disease patterns and accounts for genetic diversity. The approach involves spawning and rearing of surrogate abalone species such as pinks, greens, pintos, and reds to refine outplanting methods that will then be transferred to recovering white and black abalone—two federally endangered species. Once these methods are refined and implemented, we will begin rebuild abalone populations coast-wide.

NOAA Fisheries is also using historical commercial fishery landing data, collected by CDFW, to locate suitable outplanting sites for white abalone in the future. Scientists are conducting dive surveys and employing remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, to further explore areas where insights, like Nielsen’s, suggest white abalone were landed historically along the southern California mainland and the Channel Islands.

It was not so long ago that beachgoers could pluck abalone from any tidepool in southern California. The return of abalone to coastal habitats is possible through the dedication of many partners who are working toward a unified vision of recovery. With this in mind, Nielsen is hopeful that his great grandchildren will someday enjoy diving for abalone just as he once did as a young boy.

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