With the sun-soaked days of summer rapidly coming to an end, about 150 people turned out last week to celebrate their favorite sea snail — and support its restoration.
The beloved abalone was the guest of honor at the second annual Abalone Feed held Friday at Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort & Marina.
The dinner of fried, farm-raised red abalone was hosted by marine biologist Nancy Caruso and her husband, Tom, as a fundraiser for her nonprofit, Get Inspired! Inc. The organization works to restore the green abalone population in Southern California and other marine species across California’s coastline.
“The purpose of this event is to remake something that happened a long time ago,” Caruso said.
The Garden Grove resident said she was thrilled with the turnout Friday, considering it was three times the size of last year’s event at Big Corona.
In abalone’s heyday, California beach communities would hold an annual summer cookout where they would feast on abalone. At that time, a single commercial diver could take up to 1,440 abalone per day.
“You could go down to the beach and have to step over them,” Caruso said.
In 1997, California banned commercial fishing of abalone. Recreational diving for abalone was permitted until last year when the state closed the recreational fishery. The California Fish and Game Commission plans to keep the fishery closed through April 2021.
The widespread deaths of sea stars on the west coast of North America in 2013 allowed their prey, purple sea urchins, to explode in population. The urchins attacked and killed the roots of kelp forests, in Northern CA, which are the abalone’s preferred habitat. Caruso jump-started the project to restore the kelp there.
Caruso worked with volunteers for 12 years in Orange County to remove three million sea urchins from the ocean floor and successfully restored the kelp after being gone for 12 years.
She also manages a marine restoration program at 11 schools, including Orange Coast College, that are growing baby green abalone in aquariums and releasing them into the wild. The program serves a dual role in getting kids interested in environmental protection and science-based careers.
At the event, San Clemente resident and abalone historian John Warren displayed his collection of abalone shells that include colorful specimens from as far away as Australia and Hawaii.
After Warren’s family moved to the sleepy town of Capistrano Beach in 1950, prior to the construction of Dana Point Harbor, he apprenticed for local abalone fisherman and renowned surfer Lorrin Harrison. Warren also displayed a brass diving mask Harrison used to hunt for abalone.
“It was a very strenuous, difficult lifestyle,” Warren said. “Divers would camp at San Clemente island in small skiffs. It was a very viable existence.”
Abalone feed guests also heard about the history of abalone diving in Orange County from Harrison’s son, Jean-Paul Van Swae, and his grandson, J.P. Van Swae, including how divers would surface with abalone stuck all over their bodies so they could keep their hands free.
“I ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner of abalone,” the elder Van Swae said. “You look back at those and they were golden days.”
The Southern California Chapter of the Professional Liability Underwriting Society presented Caruso with a $2,500 check to help Get Inspired! Inc restore the populations of green abalone, white sea bass, and giant kelp.
Caruso said she’s actively looking for someone to donate a boat so she and volunteers can conduct additional studies of off-shore abalone beds.
For more information, visit getinspiredinc.org.