Volume 15, Issue 75  |  September 19, 2023SubscribeAdvertise

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What about the abalone?

By Maura A. Conlon, Laguna Bluebelt Coalition

It was a sold-out gathering at the Susi Q Senior Center Tuesday afternoon, May 30, as environmental historian, Ann Vileisis, narrated a rich, multi-braided tale of the history and present condition of abalone in the ocean waters of California.

Vileisis, author of Abalone: The Remarkable History and Uncertain Future of California’s Iconic Shellfish (Oregon State University Press) recalled her memory of hiking in Big Sur more than a decade ago and coming across an abalone shell upon the shore. “The shell was glimmering...shimmering,” she said. The moment piqued her curiosity. “Who was this extraordinary animal who created such a beautiful shell,” she pondered.

Before the lecture, attendees milled about tables displaying seven varieties of abalone shells, all of them iridescent within shining geometry. “We had abalone shells throughout our house back in the 1960s and ‘70s,” one attendee said.

Indeed, Vileisis, based in Port Orford, Ore., addressed the nostalgic aspect of these ancient sea creatures, noting the lore of how abalone were to Californians what Maine lobster was to the East Coast – part of a cultural mythology but one associated with a mis-understood ecological story.

What about team abalone

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Laguna Bluebelt Coalition

(L-R) Team Abalone: Jinger Wallace, Patsee Ober, Mike Beanan, Judy Teverbaugh, author Ann Vileisis and Nancy Caruso

Abalone flourished in earlier California waters with fossil skeletons found upon land dating back nearly 13,000 years. Abalone were the preferred food of sea otters. When these marine mammals’ population dwindled due to hunting, abalone population mushroomed, due to lack of predation. This created a windfall – a belief that their beneficent supply was endless, as it was also erroneously believed reproduction was regular and prolific. Throughout the ages – long after First Nations peoples, who revered the shellfish for nutrition and the shell for adornment and ritual purposes – various human populations hunted the abalone for sport and for profit. Vileisis also noted links with literary culture. Jack London and other members of the “Carmel Bohemians” romanticized the abalone, waxing lyrical about the requisite pounding of the meat. Such ritual was iconified in a musical piece called: “An Abalone Song” composed in 1907.

A slideshow, drawn from the author’s research, featured historic photographs of a plethora of abalone shells stockpiled in heaps, hundreds of thousands if not millions drawn from waters with no forethought regarding their future. In the past several decades, governmental agencies stepped in to impose restrictions to save the species not only from dwindling numbers but complete extinction. Changes in ocean temperature, El Niño conditions, disease and the loss of kelp beds also contributed to the plummet of the abalone population starting in the 1960s. The last abalone fishery south of San Francisco closed in 1997.

Laguna’s Bluebelt Coalition, a co-sponsor of the event and a key player in the designation of our city-wide Marine Protected Area, had this to say: “The ocean determines the climate and health of the planet while we determine the health of the ocean.” Mike Beanan, one of the co-founders of the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, continued, “Abalone are the sea sentinels for ocean water quality in Laguna’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Reducing our discharges to the coast will help the kelp and abalone to recover.”

The evening also included a presentation from Nancy Caruso, an Orange County-based marine biologist working on the re-population of green abalone in California waters with her team of scientists and volunteers. For more information, click here.

Combining cultural and culinary history with marine science, grassroots activism and gritty politics, Vileisis chronicled the plight of California’s abalone species and the growing biological awareness crucial to conserve these rare animals. “These stories are stepping points toward the future,” she said, noting our opportunity to get more local in our connection to place and to engage with ocean conservation in new ways.


Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

Lana Johnson, Editor - Lana@StuNewsLaguna.com

Tom Johnson, Publisher - Tom@StuNewsLaguna.com

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In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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