Free diving for wild Abalone on the Mendocino coast
It’s not often you get a chance to harvest your dinner. The rich waters of the north Pacific coast drew my family in, literally, and the effort paid off deliciously. It takes some planning and care yet every year sadly, unprepared divers are lost trying to pry the giant invertebrates off tidal rocks. Planning and luck play a big part when you dive for wild Abalone.
Abalone are only available for sport harvesting. They were once abundant all along the Pacific Coastline. In San Diego I’ve seen older homes with hundreds of shells set into walls. Mother of Pearl jewelry is popular most everywhere. Native American tribes would pick them up at low tide. The Spanish gorged on the meat. Over-harvesting took its toll but it wasn’t until a ‘withering foot’ disease swept through a few decades ago that they disappeared almost entirely from Baja Mexico and Southern California waters. The north coast has luckily avoided that disease and with regulation wild Abalone are flourishing.
Ready to try free diving for wild Abalone?
You need to be a strong swimmer to face the surging waters and cold conditions. Once you’ve found a good cove they can usually be found within 5 to 40 feet of water. For all the complications, it’s worth it. Biting into a tender, succulent, fresh-harvested Abalone ‘steak’ is a rare treat.
Here’s a few of the steps:
- Make sure you’re visiting in the open season. Abalone diving is carefully regulated by Fish and Game. You need to check with them about open months, rules and licenses. Mess up and there are hefty fines or imprisonment.
- Make sure you have the proper gear. There are several dive shops in the Fort Bragg / Mendocino area. You’ll feel like a sausage in the 7 millimeter suits, booties, hood and gloves but it’s worth it once you hit the water.
- Prepare yourself to be cold. The temperatures topside run from a ‘warm’ 60 to 50 degrees. Once you see the Abalone and start working adrenaline kicks in and you’ll start warming up from exertion.
- Remember: You can only harvest 3 per person per day for a total of 24 each year. Minimum size limits are strictly enforced. Checking the shell size correctly takes a gauge and experience. One Abalone can feed 4 people well! Three would feed a party. You can freeze them for months but legally you need to keep the shell, meat and tags together when storing them. We’ve kept them for a year and they’re still delicious.
I’m so grateful to my partner, Dave and his son, Jeff Rudie for doing the diving and prep this year. I went wild Abalone diving once and discovered how trying it can be to pry them off the rocks, especially in frigid waters. It’s hard killing things too, even though I feel it’s healthy to acknowledge where our food comes from and be responsible about it. Red meat? That’s where I’d draw the line.
Have you ever harvested your dinner?