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The Last Abalone Feast

A daughter of the North Coast on what's lost when diving season goes away.

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Hosts Ron Taeuffer and Tracey Anderson at a fancy-dress-themed Ab Feed in the early 2000s.

Photo: Courtesy of Lindsey J. Smith

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Purple urchins graze on what little plant life remains on a rocky reef. Before the perfect storm, this reef would have been home to a bull kelp forest.

Photo: Cynthia Catton/California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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Read more from the August 2018 Food Issue here.


Long before I
first sank my teeth into some perfectly tender abalone sautéed in butter and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts—even before I was born—there was the Ab Feed. Started in the late ’80s by a troupe of twenty- and thirtysomething divers, the Ab Feed (“Ab” in this case being short for abalone) was a three-day bacchanal celebrating the end of California’s recreational abalone-diving season. For several days before the Ab Feed, half a dozen divers from all over Northern California would haul in the daily maximum of four abalone per person. Then they’d gather, first at Salt Point State Park, north of Jenner, and in later years, after the guest list exploded, on the property of Tracey Anderson and Ron Taeuffer, a diving couple who lived in the old logging town of Annapolis, seven miles inland from the Pacific and a three-hour drive north of San Francisco. There the divers and their families would spend hours laboriously preparing the abalone: using ab irons, long stainless steel or aluminum bars, to pop the muscular marine snails out of their shells; searching the rank guts and gonads for pearls before throwing them into a bucket swarming with wasps; and finally trimming the meat, cleaning it, and tenderizing it with mallets.

After all this work, their reward was a weekend of beer, bonfires, and abalone cooked over Coleman camping stoves in every imaginable way: crisp with breadcrumbs and basil, rolled around peperoncini and cheese and then fried, sandwiched between homegrown heirloom tomatoes, baked in teriyaki sauce, or sautéed in butter with almonds. In my teenage years, right after the start of the new millennium, I looked forward to the Ab Feed more than I did to my own prom. As August slid toward September, my impatience and anticipation would reach a fever pitch, and my journal entries would take the form of a countdown: “Ab Feed in 10 days! Yeah, baby!” “It’s only two and a half days ’til the Ab Feed!” “ONE DAY ’TIL AB FEED!”

Finally, the day would arrive, and what seemed like the entire North Coast dive community would roll into Four Acres, as Tracey and Ron’s place was called. Tracey, who worked in a local office and did graphic design on the side, was the organizational firepower behind the Ab Feed, always ensuring that there were twice as many pies, cookies, and cakes as was strictly necessary. Ron, by day a maintenance man at Sea Ranch, was the leader of the dive crew: He organized who dived and when, and who cleaned and prepped the abalone. He was a legend among divers, and his exploits had earned him the nickname Crazy Ron. One year during the Ab Feed, Crazy Ron and several friends headed down to Stewarts Point to dive. “It was the worst conditions we had ever seen on the coast,” Keith Johnson, who started diving with Ron in 1984, recalls. As they suited up and readied their gear, the owner of a bluff-top property asked them if they were really going to get into that ocean, which was churning like a washing machine. The answer, of course, was yes—the Ab Feed must go on. Once in the water, they were tossed around in surf so rough that it ripped an inner tube out of a zipped flotation device. Of the whole group, Ron was the only one who managed to haul in his allotment of four abalone.

It’s been at least a decade since the last Ab Feed. In 2003, Ron was diagnosed with brain cancer, and the party was put on hiatus. He went through radiation and chemo, all the while wearing a hospital mask on which Tracey had painted a red-lipped, toothy smile that jibed with his nickname. When he went into remission, the Ab Feed came back briefly as Crazy Ron’s First Birthday. But then the cancer returned—three more times—and in 2012, Tracey died unexpectedly at 51. Ron succumbed to his illness several years later. Some corner of my heart believed that the Ab Feed would carry on after their deaths, that the old dive club could elect a new leader and get us all back together again. The club did carry on, but it seemed like nobody had the time for the Ab Feed, or the space, or the ineffable spirit that Ron and Tracey had brought to it. Nevertheless, I clung to the wild hope that an event that was filled with so much life and joy, that brought together such an improbable group of friends, could be revived.

Those hopes, for now, must go dormant. For the first time in history, the California Fish and Game Commission, the state agency that makes diving regulations, closed the North Coast’s recreational ­abalone-diving season this year, owing to an unprecedented environmental catastrophe that is threatening to wipe out California’s red abalone and, with them, a way of life in this stretch of the state. The chain of events that caused the abalone population to crash is well known to anyone who follows the slow-motion crumbling of our coastal ecosystems. It started in 2011, when a harmful algal bloom created toxins that killed a large number of abalone and other marine invertebrates. Two years later, an outbreak of wasting syndrome decimated the region’s sea stars, natural predators of purple sea urchins. Unchecked, the urchin population exploded. Then in 2014, the water warmed by as much as 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit and stayed that way well into 2016. This phenomenon, known as “the Blob,” followed by a strong El Niño, stressed the North Coast’s bull kelp forests, says Cynthia Catton, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (the state agency that enforces Fish and Game regulations), thereby limiting the quality and quantity of the food supply for abalone, urchins, and other marine herbivores. “That kind of flipped the switch and made [purple urchins] really strongly outcompete all other herbivores in the system for whatever little food was there,” Catton explains.

The urchins tore through vast beds of bull kelp, devouring the abalone’s favorite food. As early as 2014, the kelp beds off the North Coast were 93 percent smaller than in years past; since then, Catton hasn’t seen a substantial improvement. The voracious invertebrates created so-called urchin barrens—patches of rock and seafloor eaten down to nothing—stretching more than 100 miles along the coast. Scientists watched in horror as the abalone population crashed and divers turned up abalone that were wasting away inside their pearlescent shells. In January 2017, the Fish and Game Commission reduced the season total that abalone divers could harvest by one-third and shortened the diving season by two months. Eleven months later, it announced the 2018 season closure, an extreme measure to give the population a chance to rebound undisturbed.

For some divers, that decision was a gut punch. In public hearings held by Fish and Game, a handful of divers implored the commissioners to keep the season open. Some worried that the closure would be an unsurvivable economic blow to small communities up and down the coast. Others fretted that poaching would soar without divers in the water. Still others simply mourned the loss of a way of life. “Closure eliminates the tradition of [abalone] fishing,” said Jack Likins, a Mendocino County diver. “Most fishermen would rather fish, even if they don’t have as much chance of catching.”

Still, many abalone divers accepted the decision. Ron’s old diving buddy Keith Johnson, for one, didn’t need to be told not to take any abalone this year; he brought up his last catch in 2016. Long before the closure, it had become apparent to him that all was not right in our ocean. “It looked like the surface of the moon,” Johnson says of a dive he took last summer. He saw no kelp, no sponges, no grass, no plant life at all. Just bare rock, shriveled abalone, and urchins, urchins, urchins.


The abalone season
closure is temporary, but to me it feels like losing something wild and beautiful about my native North Coast, and it’s increasingly made me think back to the days of the Ab Feed. The party always began with a Friday-night spaghetti dinner as guests trickled in. Out-of-towners and even some locals, including my family, camped all weekend, tucking tents under the towering redwood and Douglas fir trees and queuing up for the Royal Flush—a plywood bathroom with a flush toilet and running water that Crazy Ron built to spare the septic system in his double-wide. Saturday was the big feed, with the morning and afternoon dedicated to cooking in the elaborate outdoor kitchen, which was made from salvaged restaurant equipment. The evening was spent feasting on abalone and potluck dishes; drinking beer or rum-and-Cokes around the bonfire; playing cribbage, poker, and rummy; and shooting the breeze late into the night. On Sunday morning, everyone slept in and rose bleary-eyed for a farewell pancake breakfast.

My parents and I were among the few non-divers on a guest list that sometimes ran to 100 people. But being an outsider almost made it more special. For three glorious days, I was part of a merry tribe of renegades who went exclusively by nicknames: Chicago Keith, Ab King, Rock Picker. They were at ease around a campfire and under the stars, raucous and spirited in a way that people can be when they have an intimate knowledge of risk. For abalone diving is dangerous, almost crazily so. Regulations permit only free diving—you can use a snorkel and a mask but not an oxygen tank—and every year a handful of people drown after getting tangled in kelp, held under by waves, bashed against sharp rocks, or hit with a heart attack. Over the past decade, at least 50 people have died while ab diving on the North Coast.

To withstand, even enjoy, that kind of risk, you have to be a bit extreme. That intensity seeps into all corners of a diving family’s life. Tracey was exuberant, bubbly, prone to fits of explosive laughter. Crazy Ron was equally loud but with a sharper edge—a heart of gold but a temper that could turn on a dime. He was the type of person who, without a trace of irony, would wear a T-shirt proclaiming, “If you don’t like my attitude, quit talking to me.” I found his sharp-elbowed ways charming, but other people feared him. The Ab Feed was invite-only, and Crazy Ron manned the guest list; the only way to ensure you’d get another invite was to not piss him off.

The easiest way to do that was to not break any of his rules: Wear your name tag. Don’t miss the group photo. Conform your attire to whatever theme Tracey had selected—bow ties and fancy dress one year, red T-shirts the next. No messing around with anyone else’s spouse. (Easy enough to abide by, unless you’d had one too many rum-and-Cokes.) No eating anywhere other than Four Acres. (Even if you got hungry on the long drive up, Ron wanted to feed you when you arrived.) No cooking or serving any meat other than abalone. (For the record, I did try alligator tail there once—delicious. But when some poor fool tried to grill a steak, Ron told him to leave and never return.)

But whether you were scared of Ron or not, you wanted to be worthy of his invitation. “It meant a lot to a lot of people,” Johnson, a regular at the Ab Feed since its inception, says. For him, as well as for Ginger and Steve Reding, longtime friends of Tracey and Ron’s who’d also gone to the Ab Feed since its Salt Point days, the weekend had a special way of bringing together compatible souls. “We met all different kinds of people that certainly we never would have met otherwise, even though we’re all from the Bay Area,” Ginger says. Ken Spacek, an Annapolis local who worked with Ron and attended the Ab Feed several times, felt that too. “It got to be more of a family thing,” he says. It was one of the few times in the year when a feeling of fellowship existed in this ruggedly remote, fiercely independent, and sparsely populated part of the coast.

Of course, the Ab Feed was just a modern expression of what coastal tribes such as the Pomo in Sonoma County have long known: Abalone is an essential part of the fabric of life in this area. The Pomo hunted it for its meat, turned its shells into beads and other objects, and incorporated it into their myths. Now, however, they—like other California tribes—are not exempt from the Fish and Game ban. They’re no longer able to take abalone from traditional fishing grounds, a cultural loss that supersedes the deprivation felt by recreational divers.

But while these emotional issues are significant, the hits to the North Coast economy are even more punishing. For decades, the small towns along the coast in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, where 95 percent of the fishery is located, could count on a not-insignificant stream of income from abalone-related tourism. Divers coming to the area needed gas and groceries, six-packs and restaurant meals, campsites and motels. The Fish and Game Commission estimated last September that a full closure of the fishery could result in approximately $26.7 million in lost revenue and the elimination of 250 jobs. With the logging and ranching industries nearly vanished, tourism has become the lifeblood of these small communities. Although abalone diving is only a portion of that economy, the loss of it—and the jobs that come with it—spells trouble, given that nearly 10 percent of Sonoma County residents and 20 percent of Mendocino County residents live in poverty.

What’s more, no one knows how long this closure will last. A new abalone fishery management plan is in the works, but Fish and Game hasn’t announced whether the season will open in 2019. For the abalone population to rebound, the natural factors that have fallen severely out of balance—purple urchins, sea stars, bull kelp—will have to return to equilibrium. The perfect storm that led to mass starvation among the abalone was driven by climate change, but we’ll need nature’s cooperation to restore the balance. “We gotta get some good years of cold water and upwellings and have the starfish return,” Johnson says.

A comeback may require years, but that doesn’t mean we should just watch and wait. It’s imperative that we take concrete steps to “prepare ourselves for the moment in which conditions might be improving,” says Fish and Wildlife’s Catton, who’s also a researcher at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. Catton is leading a group called the Kelp Ecosystem and Landscape Partnership for Research on Resilience, which is studying and coordinating responses to the collapse of the North Coast’s fragile abalone ecosystem. KELPRR has discovered pockets of healthy bull kelp forest and is trying to understand why they’re thriving and how to expand those areas. The group is also working to create new, more lucrative markets for purple urchins, which would help keep commercial urchin fishers—who typically target red urchins, which are being squeezed out by their purple cousins—afloat. Can the calcium-rich purple urchin shells be transformed into fertilizer or soil amendment? Is it possible to take immature purple urchins from the ocean and grow them on land using aquaculture, to eventually harvest their roe? Is there a market for urchin night-lights and necklaces?

Catton is also coordinating with citizen scientists and divers to keep the purple urchins in check. The Noyo Center for Marine Science in Fort Bragg is working to create three kelp refuge sites in Mendocino County. To foster them, the Watermen’s Alliance, a diver group, is leading diver efforts to manually remove purple urchins, helped along by a regulatory change: In April, the Fish and Game Commission temporarily increased the daily take limit in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties to 20 gallons of purple urchins, roughly 15 times more than the previous ceiling of 35 urchins per day.

When Johnson has gone out diving recently, he’s seen a few sea stars—possible signs of the urchin predator’s return, which could benefit kelp forest recovery and in turn lead to a replenished abalone stock. Scientists still don’t know what caused the wasting syndrome that killed the sea stars in the first place. But if they come back in earnest, “they’re gonna have a lot to eat,” Johnson says. He’s hopeful that eventually abalone will be able to thrive once more. Until that day arrives, he’s willing to wait. “We all want to [go abalone diving], but we shouldn’t do it,” he says. Diving now would be like clear-cutting old-growth forests: “It buys you a short time of jobs or pleasure or whatever, but then it’s gone.”

If Tracey and Ron were alive right now, we’d be several weeks away from the next Ab Feed. I like to think that Crazy Ron and his crew would still don wetsuits and head into the water, but that they’d do it to bag 20 gallons of purple urchins apiece. I also like to think that Ron—a man who loved the ocean so much that he kept diving throughout his battles with cancer—would hold an ab-less Ab Feed this year. He’d relax his rules and allow other meats on those Coleman stoves, because he understood the importance of the community that came from diving.

Or because, as Johnson puts it, he’s eaten enough abalone. “I like diving for them more than eating them.”

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco 

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