“He hides in caves beneath the waves — His ancient patrimony; And so ’tis shown that faith alone Reveals the abalone.”
George Sterling, “The Abalone Song”

Humans have been drawn to abalone for at least thirteen thousand years. Along the northern coast of the Golden State, Indigenous Californians like the Miwok and Pomo tribes harvested abalone for food. From their iridescent, radiant shells, they fashioned tools and shards for ceremonial dress, the light playing against the ever-changing mother-of-pearl of which their shells are composed.

The abalone population boomed along the northern Sonoma coast during the mid-1800s, when Russian fur trappers began harvesting sea otters, the abalone’s main predator. With abalone numbers growing in abundance, Chinese and American fishermen began collecting them in shallow waters, so much so that by 1900, the first regulations were placed upon abalone fishing, and the first popular fishery was closed. Soon after, Japanese divers started aggressively harvesting subtidal abalone by hard-hat and free diving. Populations were suddenly threatened, and size restrictions were imposed: no abalone smaller than 15 inches (38 centimeters) in circumference could be harvested. Over the decades, though, the sea otter population improved, and the abalone population stabilized, sustaining commercial operations and abalone divers alike.

Bodega Harbor was named after Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, who explored the area in 1775. The harbor was used from 1812 to the 1840s by Russian fur traders as part of the Russian colony, Fort Ross.

Frank Lambert, who grew up along the Sonoma coast, began harvesting abalone in 1959, when he was just five years old. “We’d head down to the old Red Barn; that’s what locals called it. But it’s better known as the Pedotti Dairy. The Pedottis were friends with my grandparents.”

The Pedotti Ranch was located just south of Fort Ross and, at the time, was a Jersey dairy. “For twenty-five cents, you could walk down to the rocks and harvest up to ten abalone a person. It was amazing.” Though he was too young to dive at the time, Frank was able to extract abalone from beneath large rocks along the shoreline. “And I’d help the divers out. We didn’t have neoprene in those days, so I’d hand them talcum powder so they could get their wet suits on.”

Bodega Bay offers a large variety of mussels during the harvest season from May 31 to October 31.

It was common during that time to live off the land and sea, quite literally. “Back then, we hunted and fished to eat.” In addition to rock fishing and abalone harvesting, Frank and his family hunted deer and boar regularly at “an old hunting club that’s shut down now. It was right across the way from where Seaview Estate is today, in Fort Ross.”

The bay is home to various species of crabs, including yellow, rock, Dungeness, red, and slender. When it comes to equipment, nets and snares are both effective for catching crabs, depending on conditions.

Red abalone are found in the rocky shores of bays, tide pools, and kelp forests.

Bodega Bay and the Sonoma coast are home to a diverse array of bird species.

When he was older, Frank began abalone diving and continued diving along the Jenner Grade, all the way up to Sea Ranch and Fort Ross, until a moratorium was placed on any form of abalone harvesting and diving along the northern Sonoma coast in 2017. “There’s word they may reopen in a few years, but that’s still up in the air,” he says.

Limpets are a group of aquatic snails that cling to the rocks among the tide pools.

“Beneath its hard shell, the abalone is a fragile and delicate creature. They are essentially hemophiliacs, the smallest cut resulting in their bleeding out and perishing.”

Beneath its hard shell, the abalone is a fragile and delicate creature. They are essentially hemophiliacs, the smallest cut resulting in their bleeding out and perishing. This makes it hard to farm them. Red abalone are more easily farmed than white abalone, but even the red abalone fisheries have closed. Abalone are highly sensitive to their environment. Like canaries in a coal mine, they’re immediately impacted by their environment. Today, their greatest predator is our species. Warming ocean temperatures due to climate change have caused the sea urchin population to increase dramatically along the California coastline. Sea urchins eat kelp forests, and their dramatic numbers have transformed once-rich kelp ecosystems into barren maritime deserts.

Kelp forests provide shelter and food for various sea creatures, including abalone, who need cold water to thrive. In 2016, an El Niño event caused water temperatures to rise dramatically. That, coupled with overharvesting, led to a moratorium the following year.

“Compared to when I was a kid—and you could bag up to ten a day—we were allowed only three a day before the season closed,” Frank says. Annual limits before the moratorium were at eighteen per person. These limits and protections were set in motion in the early aughts by the Abalone Recovery and Management Plan (ARMP), adopted by the California Fish and Game Commission. In 2001, the white abalone—one of seven species along the California coast—became the first marine invertebrate to be listed as a federal endangered species.

High above the beach, the Seaview Estate ridge sits just above the morning fog.

Frank, now 64, continues to fish for cabezon off the Sonoma coast. It’s his favorite kind of rockfish, and he recently joined a charter not far from his home in Guerneville. “When we were kids, we used abalone guts as bait. The fish loved that,” Frank says.

He remains optimistic that abalone season may reopen. When asked if he’d dive for abalone again if the moratorium were lifted, he responds enthusiastically, “Heck yes! To me, it’s the most delicious food in the world.”

Point Arena Lighthouse, located in Mendocino County, was first built in 1870 and was destroyed by an earthquake in 1906. It was rebuilt in 1908 and has been in operation ever since.