Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

101: A Solution to Abalone Poaching

When I first arrived on Catalina in the late 1960's, I was introduced to several new foods that were not part of my diet in the Midwest and on the East Coast. One was the avocado, most frequently in the form of guacamole. Another was abalone, almost always in the form of pounded and breaded steaks. At first I found it difficult to swallow a snail since my family rarely (er, never) served escargot at dinner. I must admit that it took a few samples of each before I acquired a taste for them, but I was soon diving for abalone as an alternative to the fare served in the old Toyon school dining hall!

Back in those days abalone were still very abundant. At some dive sites they were stacked on top of one another, and the black abalone was plentiful in the intertidal since no one bothered eating them due to the tough muscles required to hold on in the face of the waves. I remember watching one legal sized abalone for several years before harvesting it. I wanted it to have several reproductive seasons under its belt before I converted it into my own muscle tissue. On many occasions when the urge struck me, I simply went to Rosie's for a 50 cent "ab burger" rather than don my dive gear and hunt one myself!

Those days are now ancient history. It has been decades since I've tasted an abalone. Over harvesting by commercial and sport divers reduced the population of abs in southern California. Then the "withering syndrome" disease struck the Channel Islands over the last 20 years, further reducing populations of all abalone species, with disastrous crashes in even the black abalone. This disease appears to be most lethal at higher water temperatures. Abalone in colder, northern waters are still healthy and can be taken north of San Francisco. El Nino events in southern California most likely accelerated deaths in our waters.

In the early 1990's the Catalina Conservancy Divers (CCD) tried to reverse this trend and restore local abalone populations through the out planting of farm raised abalone. Unfortunately this stock also introduced a parasite which affected the planted and wild abalone. To achieve successful reproduction, abalone need to exist in close proximity to ensure the eggs and sperm cast into the water during spawning fertilize. Although a valiant effort, population densities remained too low for this to be entirely successful.

Over the past five years of intense diving in our dive park, I've located eight adult abalone (almost all greens). I've watched and videotaped these abs for identification and education purposes. Recently two of them have "disappeared." One may simply have found a new home spot that I haven't located. However, the other abalone showed great fidelity to a single home spot and was always there when I went looking over the past three years. Although it was in the "open" and very obvious to me, every diver I took into that area missed it so I thought it would be safe. About a month ago it disappeared from that spot, leaving only a well worn abalone "scar" (a rock surface free from encrusting life). There was no evidence of it being eaten, so I can only assume some dastardly poacher took it.

On a later dive I discovered what I thought was a new cluster of five abalone in a well-hidden location. I revisited the spot several times and discovered that one "abalone" was just an empty shell wedged in a crevice and I must have miscounted the first time since there were only three living abs present now. The nice thing is they are in very close proximity and may well be the "parents" of the few young abalone I see in the park.

I often see evidence of lobster poaching in the dive park. How often do you think a lobster predator will snap off the tail and leave the carapace intact on the bottom? Fortunately the lobster population is still healthy. Given the precarious state of local abalone populations, the taking of just one individual can affect local reproduction. I see very few small (< 2") abalone in the park compared to their frequent appearance in the 60's and 70's when I looked for them. The fewer adult abalone present, the less the chance of successful reproduction and recovery of the species here.

A recent incident in South Africa suggests an effective control on abalone poaching. Groups of poachers were diving the waters of "Shark Alley" near Dyer Island, illegally taking abalone (called perlemoen there). Suddenly one was attacked by a great white, pushed out of the water and a leg bitten off. The poacher disappeared after the attack and the mutilated body was found about 10 miles away. One of the surviving poachers, who saw the attack on his friend, said he would never take perlemoen again and returned to his former trade of selling vegetables. Perhaps I should convince a few of our local great whites to become game wardens for the park!

The South African poachers were poor and just trying to earn money to feed their families. I have some sympathy for them. I doubt the poacher who took the abalone here was in the same category. If the urge is that great, wander over to El Galleon where a dinner of two farm raised abalone plus steak is a "mere" $45. That's a lot cheaper than the fine for poaching. The Conservancy Divers and the California Dept. of Fish and Game recently finalized a plan to resume out planting of abalone in our waters. I am hopeful this effort will be successful and that some day in the future I can once again legally take these tasty snails! Of course at age 90 I may need a little help getting my dive gear on!

© 2004 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

The missing abalone munching on captured drift kelp and the "scar" left on the rock; two abalone
in the "new" cluster and the newly certified game wardens of the Casino Point Dive Park
(shark images courtesy Steve Benavides, NOT taken in Dive Park)

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2004 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia