I’m not really sure what all of the mollusk fuss is about. To me they look like aquatic portabellas or perhaps marine potatoes. But enthusiasts around the world see so much more in the abalone, enough to dive in cold, shark infested waters to collect the beauties. Fans of Abalone diving and eating go to great lengths to celebrate the sport with festivals, cook-offs, and in prose (All Abalone are Deaf by Felix Macias.) I’m always looking for new diving opportunities, so I decided to find out more.
Where can I find these things? The majority of abalone species are found in cold waters, off the Southern Hemisphere coasts of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, and Western North America and Japan in the Northern Hemisphere. Due to dwindling natural supply of abalone and increasing demand, some countries have begun farming the critters, including China, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, Chile, Iceland, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand, and the United States. Abalone are mostly taken in depths from a few inches up to 10 m (33 ft.) Abalone are normally found on rocks near food sources like kelp. Divers commonly dive out of boats, kayaks, tube floats or directly off the shore.
How do I dive for abalone? It turns out that scuba diving for abalone is illegal in most parts of the world. Instead you have to freedive for them, which makes sense since they are usually pretty shallow. An abalone diver sports the usual gear like a thick wetsuit, booties, gloves, mask, snorkel, and a weight belt. You also need an abalone iron which is used to pry the mollusk off the rock it is so fond of, and an abalone gauge to make sure the size is large enough to take legally.
This is a good time to mention the insanely stringent regulations surrounding the recreational hunting of abalone due to their severely threatened populations. In addition to the aforementioned no scuba rules, there are limits to the number taken, the size taken and the time of year the tasties are collected. These vary by country and even by city, with strict penalties for non-compliance. Some places like California have law enforcement professionals dedicated to catching abalone thieves not following the rules (where did those taxpayer dollars go?) So before you go setting your mind to hunting abalone, you should check the local regulations.
I found one! Now what do I do with it? Abalone are basically sea snails, conceptually similar to conch. You can serve it raw like sushi, or steam it, saute it, boil it, bake it, or even serve it like a “steak.” Winning cook-off recipes have made it into cakes (like a crab cake, not chocolate, thanks), battered it in beer and even mixed it into tomato sauce over pasta. The key appears to be cleaning the fresh mollusk correctly, removing the lip, tough foot and guts. A thorough pounding of the meat with a heavy mallet also seems to contribute to a tasty outcome.
So although I can’t put my scuba skills to work, it does seem like hunting for the great abalone is an interesting proposition. Although I’m not crazy about continuing to deplete the population of this animal which has been so highly regarded for so very long, I do like the idea of celebrating its existence in so many tasty ways. Perhaps I’ll stick to the farmed version and dive for something else instead.