Times Past

Dan Krieger: Abalone history thrives in Morro Bay

Morro Bay’s once extensive fishing industry started with abalone.

Chumash and Salinan Native Americans were harvesting the mollusks thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish. Middens, or the burial sites of discarded shells, are still used by archaeologists in estimating the size of early American Indian communities.

During the late 19th century, dozens of Monterey-based Chinese and later Japanese fishing boats harvested the red mollusk in the intertidal zones along our coast.

The abalone were shelled, sliced and dried and shipped to East Asia where they fetched premium prices. Many Californians had long resented this Asian-dominated industry. The export of dried abalone was banned by the state of California in a series of acts between 1913 and 1915.

The unharvested abalone population began to grow.

While many ethnic groups in California regularly prepared wonderful dishes with abalone, most Americans had never tasted abalone.

Pop Ernest Doelter, chef and proprietor of Café Ernest in the William Tecumseh Sherman Rose Adobe on Alvarado Street in Monterey, had tried preparing abalones in a variety of ways without a great deal of success.

One day he decided to prepare it like wienerschnitzel, a pork or veal loin that is pounded to tenderness, breaded and fried.

Pop Ernest’s culinary discovery became a favorite dish for the literary Bohemians who settled in Carmel. They included George Sterling, Mary Austin, James Hopper, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis and photographer Arnold Genthe.

Soon Sterling’s “Abalone Song” spread throughout California and much of the Western World:

“Oh, some folks boast of quail on toast

Because they think it’s tony,

But I’m content to owe my rent and live on abalone.”

Morro Bay became the focal point of abalone production. Bill Pierce, descended from Salinan Indians and the eldest of the Pierce brothers, began harvesting the mollusks off the rocks at low tides in 1922.

Joined by his brothers Dutch, Charlie, Les, Ernest and numerous cousins, the family began diving during the late ’20s. By 1929, they were harvesting thousands of abalone every day and processing them in their shop at 580 Monterey St.

By the mid-1930s the Pierces were joined by Glen Bickford, the Reviea and the Brebes families.

Images of mountains of abalone shells were circulated in magazines such as Life, Look, Colliers and National Geographic.

Over-harvesting stimulated by increased demand from a recovering Japan in the 1960s and other factors resulted in limits being placed on abalone fishing. Many fishermen say that the protection of the sea otter is a factor in the decline of abalones.

Fortunately, the fishing fleet at Morro Bay was able to segue into more conventional fishing as well as a thriving sports fishing industry.

This transition is celebrated in an exhibit at the County History Center at 696 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo, opening Dec. 4.

“The Catch: Stories of Local Fishermen,” is researched and organized by Cal Poly graduate history student and Morro Bay fishing community member Barbara Healy Stickel.

The exhibit features a photographs of the San Luis Obispo County fishing community taken in the 1970s by Thom Halls, whose work has appeared in Time and Newsweek.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.