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Still under threat today, California abalone has a long history of struggles

This 1963 photo is from a print showing editing marks. Fish and Game biologists Dick Poole, left and Keith Cox hold up evidence of abalone killed by sea otters that have migrated into north county coastal waters. Some shells were freshly broken.
This 1963 photo is from a print showing editing marks. Fish and Game biologists Dick Poole, left and Keith Cox hold up evidence of abalone killed by sea otters that have migrated into north county coastal waters. Some shells were freshly broken. Telegram-Tribune

Abalone have three main nemeses: man, sea otters and withering syndrome.

Since the early 1900s, various California regulations have tried to limit man’s harvest, but overfishing has been a perennial issue.

Late in the 20th century, rebounding numbers of California sea otters put additional pressure on shellfish populations.

Today, withering syndrome, a bacterial infection that thrives in warm water, deforms and attacks the ability of the marine gastropod to cling to rocks, the abalone’s chief method of self preservation.

Just this month, the state Fish and Game Commission voted to suspend the harvest of red abalone in 2018.

Abalone were a staple of Chumash life, the shells used as fish hooks and decorative ornaments.

Abalone shells are mentioned in the San Luis Obispo Tribune articles as early as 1873.

Paul Lambert stands here atop a large pile of abalone shells. In 1957, according to state records, 5.4 million pounds of abalone were harvested in California. This pile of shells stayed out at the side of Highway 41, about two miles east of town, for many years. Courtesy Paul Lambert, Images of America — Morro Bay

On June 24, 1876, a front-page article noted that a Chinese Junk was prospecting the waters of the Central Coast for abalone. Mr. O. Spooner, wharfinger at Morro Bay, took note of the 10-man, 20-ton vessel painted black.

An Aug. 5, 1876 Tribune story said that abalone was best used as bait for rock-cod: “These are somewhat difficult to procure. They are found on the under side of shelving rocks, which are submerged at high tide. You have to attack them very scientifically, for if you once touch them and don’t get them clear off it is almost then an impossibility.”

A March 24, 1877 article detailed how R.W. Jackson was making abalone jewelry being sold at Max Pepperman’s store at the corner of Monterey and Morro streets.

It didn’t take long before the mollusk was being harvested on an industrial scale. Twenty tons of shells were shipped out of San Diego, according to the Tribune on Dec 10, 1881.

By 1908, as regulations on fishing were tightened, a man named Ah Sam was arrested, sent to jail and fined $20 for possessing undersized abalone.

For the next 50 years, there are a series of stories that track the changing regulations intended to balance harvest with a sustainable population.

In 1910, waste oil from ship traffic on the coast was said to be killing the “toothsome morsel.”

In May 1910, Capt. James Cass was negotiating to sell his wharf in Cayucos, including an abalone canning plant, to the county for $23,000.


A newsreel crew affiliated with Mutual, Pathe and Hearst International News Service came to the county in March 1917 and filmed at the Union Oil tank farm and abalone cannery in Cayucos.

The Cayucos cannery by 1930 had branched into canning chicken due to restrictions on harvest. The plant shut down and was moved to Monterey.

By the 1920s, the “rubber fish” — as the Tribune described in the case of over cooking — was starting to be seen on menus of restaurants and fish markets, not just as an ethnic delicacy.

Abalone canneries later opened in Morro Bay and on the Pacific Coast Railroad wharf (Port Harford) near Avila Beach.

In 1910, the Daily Telegram invented the insult “abalone politicians,” meaning “those who are boneless but tough.”

What may be the most deadly fishing accident in the region involved abalone. At the end of May 1910, five Japanese abalone fishermen drowned when their boat overturned in a gale near Cambria. Toyo (or Tojo) Yokyama was the only victim named, and only two bodies were recovered from the surf.

A story from 1912 said Japanese divers could average 4 tons harvested a day, with crews of three working half-day shifts. The abalones were cleaned, dried and marketed in larger cities on the coast.

In 1913, legislation was drafted to prohibit exporting the product outside of the state or take more than 25 abalones in any one day.

During World War I, abalone was selling for 25 cents a pound, less than lobster but more than shrimp, according to tracking numbers from the newspaper.

Later, advances in deep-sea diving were established fishing for abalone, but the early days were dangerous.

In 1931, William Matthews was testing new equipment and nearly suffocated off of the pier when his air valve stuck. His dive tenders brought him up and had to revive him with artificial respiration.

Rev. R.W. Summers wrote the Tribune’s first extensive abalone article, on Nov. 17, 1883, excerpted below.

He began describing “rock oysters,” parapholas pholadidae, harvested from rocky tide pools of Pismo Beach with an ax.

Shell Fish on the Coast

In the same region, says Mr. Summers, and wherever the rocks project into the sea, are found infinite numbers of abalones, the Haliotes, or sea-ear.

The abalone when properly taken and prepared makes an excellent dish of food.

Some are quite large and can reach out twelve or eighteen inches from their shell, and though without feet or apparent means of locomotion slide along the rocks, when so disposed, as rapidly as a turtle will crawl.

To the naturalist and the curious the abalone is wonderfully and beautifully made. The shell is a univalve familiar to all, being an article of commerce and extensively used in cabinet ornamentation and jewelry.

In taking the abalone for food a stick should be used in prying it from the rock, and the animal taken out of the shell and beaten with wood, then the meat is very white and tender when cooked.

If metal is used it appears to have an electric effect which causes the muscles to contract and harden, and then the meat becomes tough and unpleasant to eat. Four or five will fill a large platter, and are said to furnish a delicious meal.

11-21 b3 times past Abalone

Most of the abalones on the coast are quite small, being from one to three or four inches across the shell, but larger ones are frequently seen.

These two shell-fish appear to furnish a food and commercial resource that at present is entirely neglected as if the sea were a thousand miles away.

The sea resource once formed the chief support of a great population, probably larger than it is in the county at present, as it is proven by the graves and mounds found along the coast. There are accumulations of kitchen debris that indicate centuries of time and hosts of people, and in these accumulations are found the shells of the abalone and rock oyster, and other varieties, as if these had constituted their principal food.

When Cabrillo sailed along the coast in 1542-43 he found large villages of natives so frequently that they were almost continuous, showing a very populous country, and these people drew almost all their food from the sea. The historian of Cabrillo says “they eat nothing but fish.” The wealth of the sea along the coast of California is beyond bounds.”

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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