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Abalone: Inspiration in a Seashell

April 28, 2020

Author Ann Vileisis reflects on how the chance discovery of an abalone shell on a California beach ultimately led her to write Abalone: The Remarkable History and Uncertain Future of California's Iconic Shellfish, the first comprehensive history of this charasmatic and coveted shellfish.

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I like to take walks at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. I love the fresh breeze, the blue water, the steady beat of the waves, gulls riding air currents, whales spouting, and the draw of the expansive horizon. But I also love casting my eyes downward in search for whatever has washed ashore—sea glass, driftwood, or pieces of shell. Several years back, when I scrambled over rocks to reach a small stony cove along the rugged Big Sur coast, I had no idea that I'd find a treasure that would literally change my life.

I remember it vividly. Cliffs towered, cool salt air blew in my face, and giant waves pounded—each one striking a boom that reverberated against the eroding walls and thrust some potent charge into my body. In pauses between the thrusts of seawater, I could hear rocks rumble beneath the outwash of surf. I hopped from one large surf-tumbled stone to the next and then, on a short stretch of beach, a glimmer caught my eye—a lustrous little bowl set in the dark, coarse sand. Less than two inches in length, the shell was as thin as porcelain. I turned it over in my hand. The sea had eroded its rough exterior, leaving just a fine form of silvery mother-of-pearl, through and through.

I had no idea how the fragile shell landed intact on a beach where pummeling waves jostled bowling-ball-sized boulders like so many marbles. The shell seemed to be a gift—a precious token to enter an expansive moment of heady wonder. Holding it up to sunlight, I could see the swirls of pale pink, blue, green, and yellow that made up its mysterious iridescence. How on earth could an animal—an invertebrate—create such a stunning structure?

When I found that shell, I didn’t know much of anything about the animal that made it. I remembered abalone from a favorite childhood book, Island of the Blue Dolphins. I didn't yet know that abalone had for a time grown thick along California's coast. I didn't yet know that abalone had inspired poetry, art, and California cuisine. I hadn't yet learned about abalones' ecological relationship with their sea otter predators. I didn't yet know that for decades, perhaps millennia, people had considered hunting and eating abalone as an integral part of living on the coast. I didn't yet realize that two of California's seven abalone species had been listed as "endangered." But as a historian of food and nature, I had a strong hunch that the brilliant shell I held in my hand had an important story to tell.

Once I started to look closely and ask questions, I found vestiges of abalone in many places—in shimmering flecks along headland trails, nailed to garden posts, as pendants in Rumsen and Pomo baskets, cemented whole into seawalls, pulled proudly out of closets, and yet sometimes, only in people’s still vivid and wistful memories. Many I talked with felt nostalgic for past times when the shellfish were abundant and could be hunted and eaten with abandon, yet I realized there was a bigger and far more important story that needed to be told.

Through my previous book, Kitchen Literacy, I'd become interested in food history, heritage foods linked to specific places, and the way that people have become disconnected from the source of their foods. As an environmental historian, I knew, too, that the wild animals we eat are particularly vulnerable to being consumed into oblivion. I was also aware of what marine scientists call "shifting baselines," the phenomenon of considering historic populations of marine animals based only on relatively recent time periods, leading to misunderstanding not only the past, but the present, as well. Yet historic populations of wild animals can also be misperceived if not placed into broader human and ecological contexts. In the case of abalone, the superabundance of shellfish found by European colonizers was actually an artifact of the brutal fur trade that killed off abalones' sea otter predators and ravaged Native people decades earlier.

I soon realized that all these threads were part of the history of abalone that still needed to be woven together into a whole—into a book. That stunning little Big Sur shell inspired me to begin a journey through the history of California. I found a remarkable story that also turns out to be incredibly timely because these unique mollusks now face enormous challenges to their survival.

In just the past few years, northern California's red abalone, long considered to be the most robust population, have been decimated as a result of a series of environmental stresses that turned rich kelp forests into extensive urchin barrens. Meanwhile, in southern California, hopeful efforts to save white abalone from extinction are ramping up with marine biologists—after decades of research and work—outplanting captive-raised babies, aiming to restore self-sustaining aggregations of this rarest and most endangered mollusk.

Understanding a fuller history of abalone—one that encompasses culture, cuisine, fisheries, politics, ecology, the risk of extinction, and hope for restoration—opens the door to understanding so much about our relationship with the marine environment of the Pacific Coast, and, in particular, what we need to know to be better stewards of the ocean and marine life today.

In the past, people believed that abalone could provide an inexhaustible supply of seafood, but we know now that they are highly vulnerable to overfishing and environmental stressors. We need for state fishery agencies on the Pacific Coast to act accordingly and manage abalone—and all the wild animals we use for foods—with the utmost precaution, more so than ever in this time when marine heat waves and ocean acidification are rearranging and degrading whole ecosystems. Above all, if we want our precious marine life to endure, we must commit to tackling the climate crisis.

Correcting our course will not be easy, but I hope that the perspective of history can help more people rediscover our deep and meaningful human connection with abalone and feel moved to support the conservation and restoration of these unique animals and the larger community of marine life. Abalone have long given us sustenance, enjoyment, and economic benefit, and now it is time for us to give something back. Only by doing so can we hope that future generations will have their own opportunities to find abalone and become inspired in their own ways by the glimmer of a shell at the edge of the Pacific. 

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