The Japanese Abalone Fisherman

An abalone is a type of snail that lives in rocky reefs as deep as 100 feet underwater. For thousands of years, Native Americans ate abalone and used the shells for currency, tools, and jewelry.

Museum life-size display of Japanese abalone fisherman.

In 1901, 15 divers from Wakayama-ken prefecture in Western Japan established an abalone fishery a few miles northwest of San Pedro at White Point. Their first diving boats were large open rowboats with five-to-six men crews assisting. They used helmets of Japanese manufacture, and a hand pump to compress breathing air down to the diver. In addition to diving the White Point reefs, they also rowed to San Clemente Island, about 50 miles from White Point, seeking abalone.

Here is a Japanese abalone diver at work off White Point. After the diver uses his pry bar to remove the abalone from the rock, he stores it in a net sack. The diver’s assistant (called a tender) works in the boat above, taking care of the diver’s air hose and other needs. When the diver fills his sack, he will tie it to the rope lifeline so the tender can haul it up and send down an empty sack. A typical sack weighs 60 pounds.

California’s post-World War II population explosion created an even greater demand for the abalone, and millions of pounds were consumed annually. Many Caucasian divers entered the trade, modernizing the fishery with engine-driven boats equipped with motorized air compressors. Eventually, over-production, pollution, and the predatory sea otters decimated the abalone population to near extinction. Trying to save the resource, the State of California banned the commercial harvesting of abalone in 1997.

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