The old cabin at Whaler’s Cove at Point Lobos, built in the
1850s by Chinese fishermen. An abalone cannery was
once located just down the hill from the cabin.
The local history of a gourmet gastropod
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN COX
At the turn of the last century, bohemians flocked from north and south to the area around Carmel-by-the-Sea. They came for refuge and for revelry. They painted, sculpted, photographed and wrote. They spent long hours on the white sandy beaches, drinking and singing, and eating abalone.
Sometimes they sang about abalone.
These artists and writers who celebrated our local abalone offer one of the most vivid chapters in the history and lore of Monterey Bay’s beloved gastropod. But the story of the region’s abalone obsession begins much earlier, and as with many a love affair, there were twists and turns along the way.
At Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, which has been something of a touchstone in abalone’s local history, an old trail leads down toward the water at Whaler’s Cove. Along the way, an iridescent stratum of crushed shells in the sea bank offers a glimpse of abalone feasts long past. This bay has been a refuge and source of sustenance for humans for as long as its history has been recorded. Some 3,000 years ago, the Ohlone were attracted to the area by the abundance of abalone and mussels within the coastal tide pools. Their only competition for collecting the mollusks came from resourceful sea otters that would use rocks to crack open the hard shells.
Ancient shell piles, or middens, indicate that abalone were once a large part of the indigenous diet as well as an early form of currency. When the first Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaino surveyed the coast in 1602, abalone was likely the last thing on his mind. But his arrival sparked a chain of events during the next 400 years that came close to completely eradicating abalone along California’s Central Coast.
As the Spanish made their way up the coast from Mexico, looking for silver and gold, they dispatched Alaskan natives and Russian trappers to hunt the population of sea otters. Their pelts were highly prized in China and could be traded for mercury, a critical component in the amalgamation process that enabled miners to collect fine particles of gold and silver. In fewer than 20 years, the local otter population dwindled from a peak of 16,000 to less than 100. With the sea otter population decimated, and the Ohlone tribe devastated by the Spanish occupation, the abalone began to reach unprecedented numbers in shallow tidal areas.
After a strenuous two-year voyage on a small sailing junk, five Chinese fishing families arrived at Point Lobos in 1851. As they began to explore the area they were amazed by the number of abalone along the coast. They would locate the mollusks in the frigid water and quickly pry them loose before the animals could fully anchor themselves to the rocks for protection. If a harvester was not quick enough, there would be no hope of removing the giant shell. Stories have been told of people who drowned under the incoming tide when their fingers became lodged between the shell and a sharp rock crevice.
Once harvested, the abalone were separated from their shells and processed with a succession of short blanches in scalding salt water, followed by drying and smoking. This delicacy was sent to gold mines in the Sierra Nevadas or shipped by the fishing families to their home in Canton, China. The leftover shells were cleaned and exported to Europe for use as buttons or mother-of-pearl inlays.
Abalone are unique in the fact that they can be shipped fresh for several days by stacking the shells to allow one abalone to feed off the algae and barnacles attached to the top of the shell beneath it. In this way, fresh abalone, along with less-perishable smoked abalone, dried squid and shark fins, were sent to markets in San Francisco.
By 1879, the small Chinese fishing village at Whaler’s Cove had exhausted the abalone population close to shore and had moved outward to more fertile fishing grounds. But 18 years later, Gennosuke Kodani, a young Japanese entrepreneur, brought a team of skilled divers and state-of-the-art equipment from Japan to the old fishing camp to harvest the larger abalone from deeper waters in the bay. A diver would be shoehorned into a cloth and rubber suit, and then ferried out further off from shore.
Once at the gathering area, the diver would put on a heavy glassand- metal helmet and drop overboard. His support team would stay above, pumping a large, two-handled bronze bellows that provided air to the diver below. Though it was an incredibly hazardous operation, it was highly profitable. After just a few years, Kodani convinced landowner Alexander Allan to partner in a successful cannery and export business. Outside of the Chinese and Japanese immigrant populations, most people on the Central Coast had not yet cultivated a taste for the giant sea snail.
An inquisitive chef named Ernest ‘Pop’ Doelter was one of the first cooks to introduce abalone to western palates, beginning in 1910. The German native was game to experiment with various ways of serving the exotic mollusk, one of which used lye as a tenderizing agent. Eventually the recipe Doelter was seeking emerged from his childhood: Wiener schnitzel, thinly sliced veal, pounded, breaded, fried and served with lemon. This simple preparation was an instant success, and to this day remains one of the area’s most popular ways to eat abalone. Pop Doelter quickly gained a local following, especially from the artists and writers living in and around Carmel.
In 1915 Doelter showcased his recipe to great reviews at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. Chefs from up and down the coast quickly integrated abalone into their menus, and by 1957 the statewide abalone catch was well over 5 million pounds. Doelter also attempted to popularize his use of “abalone nectar” as a powerful tonic, and was known to entertain guests on his boat by dancing on the bloated carcasses of harpooned basking sharks. Neither of these practices was as well received as his timeless recipe.
Over the course of the 20th century, California took steps to preserve the abalone population. As early as 1915, the state had completely banned the practice of drying and exporting abalone. As the quantity available continued to diminish, demand steadily increased and abalone prices rose to historic heights.
Today, state law prohibits commercial abalone diving and limits sport divers to keeping just two dozen abalone per year. Sadly, this is unlikely to change any time soon, because, despite a tremendous effort by marine biologists and conservationists, the wild stock does not appear to be recovering. (See sidebar “Losing the Mating Game.”)
This turn of events has naturally inspired mariculture farms to begin experimenting with raising abalone for harvest. Aside from sport divers and their lucky friends, most of the abalone eaten locally comes from sustainable abalone farms like American Abalone of Davenport and Monterey Abalone of Monterey. (See related story, p. 42.) Not surprisingly, the scarcity of abalone renders it a pricey, exotic commodity. A small, live abalone from one of the local abalone farms costs around $6 or $7 and yields only enough meat for a single appetizer portion.
Preparing abalone today is like working with a living artifact—a rare ingredient with enormous regional and historical significance. Those who have a taste for it—especially people who grew up eating it or diving for it in their youth—are helping to keep the abalone farms busy. “Over the years, I have talked to a lot of people,” said Tom Ebert, owner of American Abalone of Davenport, “and the older generation remembers when abalone was plentiful. Now people have a real sentimental value, and we fill a niche or void for people in their 60s who used to go diving themselves. I love helping those guys.”
PATIENCE, WATER AND KELP
There are less than half a dozen commercial abalone farms in California, plus a handful of research institutions studying and raising species at risk of becoming endangered or extinct.
Two farms grow abalone on the Central Coast: one in Davenport (American Abalone) and another on Municipal Wharf Number 2 in Monterey (Monterey Abalone). Both outfits raise Haliotis rufescens, the red variety of abalone.
The farms share similar production methods. Both feed their abalone local kelp and keep them in ocean water. The most significant difference in the two operations is that Monterey Abalone keeps its abalone in large metal baskets suspended directly in the bay below the commercial wharf, whereas American Abalone raises abalone in onshore tanks, which are constantly pumped with fresh sea water. American also has a hatchery for spawning abalone, while Monterey relies on purchasing young abalone to be raised in its open-water pens.
Both farms have been commended by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program as ecologically responsible and sustainable operations. Since abalone is an indigenous species and eats local kelp, neither of these farms has an adverse impact on the environment.
Even better, Trevor Fay of Monterey Abalone anticipates that, as the captive red abalone reach sexual maturity, they may release reproductive material that could actually stimulate the sparse wild population.
Each week Monterey Abalone harvests six tons of kelp to feed its 200,000 resident gastropods. This seems like a huge amount, but Monterey Abalone’s entire harvest represents less than .02% of annual kelp growth within the harvesting area.
In Davenport, where the abalone grow in land-based tanks, the facility requires 2,000 gallons of fresh ocean water per minute to be pumped into storage tanks and aerated and distributed to the various tanks used for the different stages of farming. This process requires much more energy than suspending the cages directly in the ocean, but it has the advantage of giving the farmer more control over the environment. In theory, a farmer can better moderate water temperature, cleanliness and even acidity when dealing with a closed system— protecting the abalone from warming trends, for instance, as were seen during the major El Niño events of the 1980s and ’90s, which harmed the local abalone population.
Tom Ebert, of American Abalone, acknowledges the drawbacks of the energy required in this method. “PG&E powers the pumps currently,” he said, “but we are working on getting wind turbines from the state to subsidize energy costs.”
Who are the buyers? Ebert recalls when 95% of his business was in exports to Japan. Now, he says, “People in China want to buy abalone from California. I get calls monthly, but right now we only sell domestic. We have built relationships with good customers over time and can’t take on new wholesalers.”
Even though American Abalone has difficulty keeping up with demand, it still opens its doors to sell abalone to the public each Saturday