Northern California divers are indeed fortunate to have one of the ocean’s tastiest treats so close to home–the red abalone. These mollusks are abundant in our state’s northern waters and, with a little bit of knowledge, they are easy to harvest and make a mighty fine meal. What follows are a few practical tips to prepare for your dive, collect, and cook your catch.
Abalone may only be harvested north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The season limit is 24 and daily bag and possession limit are 3. A punch card along with your fishing license is required. New 2008 regulations require divers to tag each abalone (or ab) landed. While taking abalone you must have a legal abalone iron and measuring device in your possession. Your local dive or fishing shop can fix you up with these. Only breath-hold divers—no scuba allowed—may take abalone.
First you will need a good fitting 7mm or quarter-inch wetsuit. Of course, a good fitting mask, fins and snorkel will also be needed. Weight yourself so you are neutral around 10 feet. You will also need a float, a way to hold your catch, and a way to anchor your float while you are diving. A mesh-covered inner tube works well as a float and game bag; otherwise, an inflatable mat or boogie board (diver’s mat) and goodie bag will work. Generally, it is easier to swim longer distances on a diver’s mat. You may anchor your float with a kelp anchor (a length of line with a brass clip) or a small sea anchor. The latter is preferred in the early season when there is little kelp.
The next task is to select your dive site. Allow me a bit of shameful self-promotion and suggest my book, A Diver’s Guide to Northern California. This book has more information than I have room for here. Otherwise, if you can dive to 30 feet, you will get your limit of abalone at any entry on the North Coast. If you can only dive to 10 or 15 feet you will have to select your sites more carefully. In the early days of the season many abalone may be found in shallow water right off the area’s most popular beaches. Later in the season, you will have to swim, hike or motor further to find plentiful abalone in shallow water.
Once in the water look for areas along drop-offs and at the edge, often the outer edge, of kelp beds. Try following the drop-off or kelp to the bottom and begin your search there. New divers tend to hover off the bottom and don’t see any abalone. Look on rocks at the edge of sand channels or back in cracks. Often abalones are found upside down, back in cracks.
Once you spot your abalone, make an estimate of its size with your gauge. Don’t touch the abalone at this point or it will suck down and you will never get it off the rock. Try grabbing a piece of kelp and calming yourself while you consider how to pluck your abalone. This has two benefits: it allows you to hold your breath longer, and it gives you time to select the optimal ab iron placement. In one swift motion insert your abalone iron between the ab and its rock and pop the ab off. Remember, you are not prying the abalone off; you are simply breaking the suction that holds it to the rock.
Once on the surface measure your catch. A legal abalone will not fit through your gauge in the longest dimension. Replace short abalone where you found them, and hold it to the rock until it sucks down. Remember this is supposed to be fun. Try to resist the urge to take the first ab you see, it is often shorter than ones you will find later. Also, try to take some time to explore the reef, you will be surprised what you will see when you are not focused on abalone.
My favorite way to prepare abalone was invented by one of my dive buddies, Marleen Sacks. First remove the foot from the shell and trim off the black “slime.” Next slice into quarter-inch steaks, and pound until tender (not until mush). Dice the pounded steaks into about three-quarter-inch squares, and discard any bits that were poorly pounded and hard. Dip into beaten egg (seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon zest), and then into cracker crumbs. Fry in hot oil until golden brown, about a minute on each side, and drain on paper towels. Do not overcook. Mm-mmm! Happy hunting!