's Abalone Page

Last Modified 2006-May-22


n. a large marine mollusk of the genus Haliotis, having a bowllike shell bearing a row of respiratory holes, the flesh of which is used for food and the shell for ornament and as a source of mother-of-pearl. [1840-50 American; taken as singular of California Spelling abulones, plural abulon, aulon (accent over the "o") descended from a word in Rumsen, a Costanoan language formerly spoken in Monterey, California]
--Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Ed.

"Abalone are mollusks of the genus Haliotis ("Sea Ears"). They are in high demand as a shellfish delicacy. Commercial fishing boats in California are getting up to $600 per dozen right off the boat.(Note: This quote was pre-1997 when commercial abalone diving was still legal.)

Other names by which abalone are known include pauas (New Zealand), perlemoens (South Africa), ormers (British Channel Islands), awabi (Japan), mutton-fish (Australia), and silieux (France). Any other local names I've missed?"
--Rocky Daniels

Illustration 1: Abalone Nominclature

Illustration 2: Top and Side view of clean and encrusted ab

Abalone Life Cycle


Abalone are broadcast spawners which means at certain times of the year when the tide/water temp/etc. are right the female abalone releases millions of eggs (a 1.5" [38mm] abalone may spawn 10,000 eggs while an 8" [200mm] abalone may release 11 million or more) and the male sensing the eggs in the water, releases a cloud of sperm. The sperm unites with the egg in the water becoming an embyro abalone (plankton).


The embyro abalone drift on the current for about a week as plankton then they sink to the bottom and attach to a rock.

Attach to Rock and Grow to Sexual Maturity

The tiny abalone starts eating algae; scraping it off the rocks with its file like tongue, the radula. As it grows larger, it starts to eat the broken off fronds of kelp that fall to the bottom. Abalone grow at different rates depending on water temperature and food availibility. (warmer water and more food=fast growth?) I think I read somewhere that a 7" [178mm] red abalone is approximately seven years old and their growth rate slows when they get over 7" [178mm]. The red abalone is sexually mature (able to spawn) at 1.5" [38mm].

Ab Species in California waters

Why Northern California has so many Abalone:

During the 1800s, Russian traders landed on the west coast of North America in what is now Alaska to hunt sea otters for fur and elephant seal for blubber. They worked their way down the coast decimating the otter populations to supply the demand for otter fur coats, hats, gloves, etc. in Europe and the Eastern United States. Eventually, they ran out of otters to kill. (Except for a small sea otter population south of Monterey.) The elephant seal was also almost wiped out.

After the otters were gone, the abalone population exploded along the entire west coast. (Otters are the abalones' main predator.) Commercial abalone harvesting started in the early 1930s in central and southern California. The annual catch was small for the first ten years, around 2 or 3 million pounds? After World War II, the abalone catch increased to roughly 5 million pounds a year until the early '70s when it peaked at 7 million pounds and then quickly tapered off. (The north coast of California has never been legally open to commercial abalone havesting.)

Sport diving for abalone in northern California has always been breath holding only. (I think Jack London and some of his cronies started this tradition and upheld it in the name of conservation when scuba became available.)

The double-edged sword of commercial urchin diving

Urchins compeat with abs for living space and food. Commercial urchin divers collect millions of pounds of urchins a year, clearing more room for abalone. The problem is most commercial urchin divers also have commercial abalone licenses. (Which rumor has it, can lead to temptation to poach abalone from the north coast, make a quick trip out to the Farallon Islands on the way back home, and land the abalone in Half Moon Bay claiming they were caught at the Farallons.)

A few words on Conservation:

  • Take only what you can eat
  • Look for big, thick, round abalone. (referred to as "hub caps") They're less work to clean for the amount of meat you get out of them.
  • Practice your freediving skills, so you're not rushed and then cut the ab when you're trying to take it.
  • Don't try to take abalone that are clamped down; you'll probably cut the ab in the process; which will kill it. (see illustration)

    Abalone are hemophiliacs; one small cut and they will bleed to death.

  • NEVER barter or sell your abalone, including the shell.
    (This is illegal and has a LARGE fine.)
  • It is legal to give it away; but, if you give your limit away, you cannot go get another limit the same day.

Examples of over-fishing, resource mismanagement:

The Central Coast of California used to have large populations of abalone; but, due to over fishing (there are pictures from the 50's of ab shells stacked 10ft [3m] high covering acres), the construction of Highway 1 (silting up some of the prime beds), sea otters, etc. There are very few abalone left. Most of them are tucked far back in cracks so the sea otter can't get them.

In the Channel Islands of Southern California, abs are being affected by a shrunken-foot blight killing them off. (cause unknown: pollution? water temp.? disease?) Commercial abalone diving and scuba for sport ab diving were (as of September '97, all ab diving south of the Golden Gate Bridge is closed and there's is no commercial abalone fishery) allowed on the islands. (Try to find legal 7" [178mm] red abalone now, good luck.)

The North Coast of California in recent years has seen large scale poaching of abalone. (F&G estimates that up to 25% of the abalone harvested on the north coast are poached. I have seen a few reefs stacked with abs one year, only to come back the next year and only find scars on the rocks, where the abs were.) There is also intense pressure from commercial ab divers to open the deeper waters of the North Coast. (What do you think will happen to the ab population when this happens? Look at Southern California and the Central Coast.)

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Last Modified 2006-May-22