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The Cultural Significance of Abalone

The Cultural Significance of Abalone

The critically endangered mollusks have been essential to Native American identity for thousands of years

For thousands of years, the abundant abalone population along California’s coast played a central role in the lives of the state’s Indigenous peoples. Seven species of these large, plant-eating marine snails thrived in California’s intertidal and subtidal reefs to depths of more than 200 feet. The term abalone is derived from the Rumsen word aulun, and anthropologists have found the remains of abalone shells in middens (ancient shell mounds) that date back at least 12,000 years.

In his book, Abalone Tales: Collaborative Explorations of Sovereignty and Identity in Native California, anthropologist Les W. Field likened the significance of abalone for California’s coastal tribes to the role that the bison played for Plains Indians. And at the Autry Museum of the American West’s Human Nature exhibit, which examines the relationship between California’s Indigenous people and the environment, Shmuwich Chumash weaver and cultural educator Timara Lotah Link noted the importance too: “As coastal Native people, abalone is our most visible object of cultural identity,” she says. “Men, women, and children wear abalone with pride, and the subtle differences in style can tell you which tribe a person is from.”

But a combination of factors—most notably overfishing, poaching, climate change, disease, and habitat loss—have decimated California’s abalone stocks. After once numbering in the millions, six of the species are now designated as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In 2001, the white abalone became the first federally listed endangered marine invertebrate and biologists fear it could go extinct within the next 20 years.

For most non-Indigenous people, other than commercial fishermen and sport divers, the decline in abalone is mostly an inconvenience and little more than the loss of a favorite delicacy. But for the state’s Native Americans, the collapse of California’s abalone population represents both the depletion of a vital food source and the painful loss of ancient cultural traditions.

The Traditional Role of Abalone

For roughly 20 California coastal tribes, including the Yurok, Hoopa, Karuk, Pomo, Wiyot, and Ohlone in Northern California and such Southern California cultures as the Chumash, Tongva, and Kumeyaay, the abalone has played a major role both in daily life and as part of ceremonies since time immemorial.

Rich in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, abalone was vital to the diet of Indigenous people along the coast. The meaty red abalone, found from Oregon to Baja California, is the largest of the world’s 56 known abalone species and can grow to 12 inches across and weigh more than three pounds. Abalone was also sometimes dried and used for trade with inland tribes.

Beyond the nutritional value of these shellfish, abalone shells, rough on the outside but with iridescent and opalescent interiors of pinks, purples, reds, and greens, were used functionally and as part of rituals.

Carved into circular shapes, the shells became a form of currency. The remnants of abalone from the California coast have been found as far away as the Mississippi River. Pieces of abalone shell ornamented ceremonial regalia, both for visual beauty and to create a jangling, chiming sound during dances as the carved shell fragments rattled off one another.

The Chumash and Tongva inlaid abalone into the prows of their tomols (called Tiats by the Tongva), which are oceangoing plank canoes. In addition, they crafted abalone shells into durable, nearly circular fishhooks that greatly enhanced their deep-sea fishing capabilities.

An assortment of tribes also integrated abalone into their spirituality. In her book Abalone: The Remarkable History and Uncertain Future of California’s Iconic Shellfish, author Ann Vileisis writes that both the Chumash and the Yokut in the Central Valley employed abalone shells as part of burial rituals, while Kumeyaay shamans used the shells during rainmaking ceremonies. The Pomo considered abalone the ocean’s first creature and the story of Abalone Woman is part of the oral tradition of several North Coast tribes, including the Yurok and Wiyot.

An Uncertain Future

Abalone were a ubiquitous presence along the California coast well into the 20th century, both as a delicacy in restaurants and as keepsakes in souvenir shops. Many recreational skin divers harvested abalone and backyard barbecues featuring abalone as the delectable main course were common. The prospect of depleting the seemingly infinite stocks was unthinkable.

But the population did indeed crash and in 1997 the state banned all commercial abalone fishing south of San Francisco, and that ban has since been extended to the entire coast. The recreational fishery for red abalone in Northern California was closed in 2018 and the prohibition will continue until at least 2026.

A big part of the problem was the illusion of perpetual abundance. Abalone are a favorite food of sea otters and after these marine mammals were nearly hunted to extinction following the arrival of Europeans in California, abalone prospered. Thanks to their protected status, sea otter numbers have increased, thus putting additional pressure on remaining abalone stocks.

But overfishing by humans has taken a far greater toll: Millions of pounds of abalone were harvested annually. And because these mollusks mature slowly and require a certain population density to successfully reproduce, the animals couldn’t easily recover. There simply weren’t enough adult abalone, nor were the surviving ones in close enough proximity for spawning.

A series of cascading environmental events have also devastated abalone. A bacterial infection known as Withering Syndrome took a heavy toll, especially along the southern half of the coast and during episodes of warming ocean water. Abalone eat bits of kelp and algae drifting through the water column but a sequence of marine heat waves killed off huge numbers of sunflower sea stars, which prey on purple urchins. As a result, the urchin population has exploded. The urchins voraciously devour kelp, greatly reducing a vital food source for abalone, especially because kelp forests were already stressed by warming ocean waters.

To enhance the survival of abalone, the state has launched management plans designed to protect these shellfish, as well as California’s kelp forests. Thousands of captive-bred white abalone raised at the White Abalone Culture Lab at the UC Davis Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay have been planted in the waters off Southern California.

Tribal members are also involved in abalone recovery efforts. In Sonoma County, the federally recognized Kashia Band of Pomo Indians of the Stewarts Rancheria is planning a tribal abalone breeding program, as well as a monitoring program and a purple urchin removal project to restore kelp, at their proposed abalone aquaculture center.

Tongva artist Mercedes Dorame’s installation Mercedes Dorame: Woshaa’axre Yaang’aro (Looking Back), which consists of five abalone-shaped sculptures ranging from 4 to 12 feet tall in the rotunda at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, is bringing new attention to the importance of abalone for Indigenous people. And Northern Chumash artist Leah Mata Fragua, who uses abalone shell in her jewelry, has spoken out about the impact of the decline in abalone for Native people.