California Red Abalone needs to become the State Marine Snail!
The time has come to start a statewide movement to propose the California Red Abalone (Haliotis rufescens) as the California State Marine Snail.
California Needs a New State Emblem
When you think of the emblems of State of California, no doubt the first thing that comes to mind is their official state animal, the California grizzly bear (Ursus californicus) emblazoned on our state flag:
Or perhaps it’s the Californian Quail (Callipepla californica), our state bird frequently seen scurrying beneath the bushes surround Abalone Bay that comes to mind:
Then there’s always the loved California Golden Poppy, our state flower:
But missing in our long list of California State Symbols, Songs, and Emblems is the California State Marine Snail.
To help plead our case we’ve listed seven reasons why we think the Red Abalone needs to be selected as the California State Shellfish.
We urge you to contact your local California State Senate and California State Assemblymember today!
1. California Red Abalone Are the Largest and Most Common Marine Snail in Northern California
Abalone (/ˈæbəloʊniː/ (click here for pronunciation) is a common name for any of a group of small to very large sea snails, marine gastropod mollusks in the family Haliotidae. The Red Abalone is the world’s largest and is found commonly in Northern California, including The Sea Ranch. However, the California Fish and Game Commission (2005) notes they can be found from Oregon to Baja California. Red abalone inhabits California’s rocky subtidal areas that are abundant with kelp. They are frequently found around 40 m depth (up to 180 m), though with some luck may be found intertidally.
This local marine snail carries a shallow ear-shaped shell of brick red to pink with iridescent mother-of-pearl. It is pierced with three to four respiratory holes rising above the shell’s surface. The mantle and tentacles are black and the underside of the foot is yellowish.
2. Abalone Are An Important Resource for Residents Past and Present of California’s Coast
Abalone, a staple of coastal life for centuries, is prized as an important food source for many California Native peoples. Its iridescent shell was used in regalia and adornments, making them a high trade commodity.
Red abalone shells have been found in Channel Island archaeological sites. Abalone was the main shellfish item in the Indian’s diet when found in sufficient quantity. Enormous quantities of abalone have been found along the coast from Monterey Bay south and among the Channel Islands. Recently, Santa Cruz Island’s middens red of abalone were carbon dated to ca. 6200 cal B.C., with the bulk of them dating between 5000 and 3300 cal B.C.
The coast Yuki, who lived in what is now Mendocino County, harvested abalone, their most important shellfish source, to fulfill their immediate needs. They rarely preserved the meat for trade The Yuki devised a special tool for removing abalones from rocks. Made of hardwood, the abalone stick measured approximately a yard long and had a flat chisel-like end. When it broke it could be resharpened with a mussel-shell knife.
Reno Keoni Franklin, Chairman of the Kashaya Band of Pomo, shares “In our Kashaya language, the language spoken on the Sonoma Coast for more than 12,000 years, the red abalone is called duʔkʼaš (pronounced Doo Kah Shh). Its shell is called duʔkʼášqʼaṭa. It has been a part of our diet, ceremony, and culture for thousands of years.”
Several historic references noted they to traveled within the nearshore and for some, out many miles to offshore rocks to harvest the abalone. Others would venture out into the open ocean for harvesting, by swimming and canoe.
Used as Trade Goods
Abalone was frequently eaten fresh. However, sun-dried abalone could be transported more easily or stored for future use. Non-coastal Native American groups could travel long distances to enjoy the delights of fresh and dried seafood, often trading for articles for shells with the coastal bands.
Later the early Spanish explores would trade with the many tribes of the Pacific Northwest (Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska). As reported in California Abalones, During the Santiago Expedition of 1774, Father Peña, reports, “our people bought several of these articles (otter skins, painted rush caps, capes, etc.) in exchange for old clothes, and [abalone] shells, which they had brought from Monterey.”
Chinese immigrants brought to California to help build the railways became the only other population besides the Native Americans to harvest abalone. Previously prohibited in their native country to harvest abalone, they were responsible for the “Abalone Rush” in the early 1850s. By 1879 these Chinese immigrants had harvested over 4 million pounds of red abalone. The mollusk’s meat was dried for export to China.
The Chinese in California were soon followed by Japanese fishermen. The 5 men crew of Japanese (a diver, a line tender, a kelp cutter, a pump operator and a boat operator) used more sophisticated and efficient methods that included boats and diving suits to harvest abalone from the bottom of deeper waters. Between 1916 and 1929, the Japanese commercial fisheries in Monterey were responsible almost the entire abalone catch of over 2 million pounds per year. Abalone was harvested, shucked and then canned to be sold.
3. Abalone Hold An Important Ecological Role
California Red Abalone thrives in red and brown kelp forests, home to highly diverse cold Pacific water communities. Abalone’s ecological role in marine ecosystems is to stabilize the kelp forests and rocky reefs. They prefer locations where food is abundant and relatively easy to capture. The generally inactive abalone will not forage unless they are unable to catch sufficient drift algae. When that happens they will forage in kelp strands.
About five days after their hatch, abalone larva begins to ingest the micro-algae. While small juveniles do not feed directly on kelp, the kelp beds provide refuge and safety for their survival. They grow about one inch per year when food sources are abundant.
“Perfect Storm” Decimates the Red Abalone
But with what some have called a “perfect storm” that combined climate change warming the waters, a toxic algae bloom, widespread sea star disease, and the overpopulation of purple urchins, Northern California kelp forests were reduced as much as 95% to an all-time low. The population of the abalone drastically declined and with the insurgency of the purple urchin, these marine habitats became drastically altered across the West Coast. By 2017 after years with low kelp abundance, the impact to the red abalone was critical, with a mortality of almost 65 percent reported by divers.
Clear signs of starvation by the California red abalone included loss of muscle mass and exhibiting risky behaviors in their search for algal food. So desperate for food abalone, who naturally kept hidden in the crevices of rocks, were now seen precariously climbing up algal stalks for food.
The kelp loss represents a far greater, ecological impact and concern. Kelp is the primary food source for urchin. This resulted in the urchins choking off other species that need kelp to survive, like our abalone.
The influx of purple urchins lay waste to the remaining kelp forests creating barren fields of rocks.
Today the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s marine invertebrate management team has partnered with the fishing industry, recreational diving enthusiasts, and the scientific community in efforts to assess kelp forest recovery combined with long-term ecosystem monitoring programs. Their goals are to track changes in ocean conditions.
Commercial sea urchin divers are now attempting to help bring back the kelp. Using a large suction tube called an airlift, the purple urchins are lifted from the rocky bottom, upward to the divers’ boats. They are then turned over to a waste disposal company to be made into compost. Since January, about 120,000 urchins from a small cove beside the town of Caspar, in Mendocino County have been collected. The goal is to deliver another 1.5 million by July. Ultimately the hope is to remove purple urchins from small areas where some bull kelp still remains.
4. Sport-fishery of California Red Abalone Has a Long Tradition
Abalone Diving a popular fishery, and sport during the 1950s and 1960s continued until its demise in 2018. Sport-fishery of abalone was established in 1913 with a bag limit of 10 established in southern California. In those early years, harvesters removed abalones attached to the rocks uncovered during low tides. Only the bravest and hardiest dare dive the chilling waters for their catch.
Later the fishery was limited to northern California. Harvesting the marine snail was enjoyed by tens of thousands of fishers along Sonoma and Mendocino counties. With each season’s diminishing population of abalone, the restrictions on the harvest of tightened including:
- eliminating the use of tanks,
- restricting the locations where abalone could be harvested
- restricting the total number of abalone allowed in position until ultimately,
- closing completely the harvesting of all abalone beginning with 2o18 Red Abalone Harvest Season
5. California Red Abalone Sport-Fishery Is a $44 Million Industry
Recreational fishing, the third most popular water-related activity after beach going and swimming, is enjoyed by 2.7M people ocean fishing annually in California (Leeworthy 2001). Between 1965 and 1985 there was a 400% increase in the number of recreational scuba divers for abalone in Southern California.
Estimates for that recreational fishing show it generates an estimated $230M-$610M in direct expenditures per year. Estimates of the total non-market use value of recreational fishing are even higher and ranges between $342M -$2B. For the red abalone fishery, its worth conservatively is $24-$44 Million in annual non-market benefits to recreational fishers
The red abalone fishery remained open until 2018 in northern Californa. As a result, it jeopardized millions of dollars in recreational benefits.
6. Abalone Farming Is A New California Commercial Enterprise
Abalone Farming is a budding commercial enterprise with farms like Monterey Abalone Company, American Abalone Farm, and Abalone Farm. All four abalone farms in California are located south of the North Bay Area. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program names California farmed abalone a “best choice.”
7. Nominating the California Red Abalone Will Help Bring Light to Its Critical Place in California’s History, Economy, and Commerce.
What Are You Waiting For? Contact Your Representatives Today!
We hope you have been inspired to find your State Congressional Representatives. Let them know your interest in establishing the California Red Abalone as California’s State Marine Snail and ask them to nominate the red abalone Then let us know in the comments below what your representative will be doing to make it happen.
Learn More about California Red Abalone: