Divers scouring the sea-bed for abalone are paying with their lives. Four people perished in the past week in California while pursuing abalone, which is used in sushi and a variety of other Asian dishes and can sell for 100 dollars apiece on the black market.
Abalone are a special type of shellfish or mollusk. The meat of this mollusk is considered a delicacy in certain parts of Latin America (especially Chile), South East Asia, and East Asia (especially in China, Japan, and Korea).
The quest for the mighty mollusk is indeed deadly. Abalone hunters rappel down cliffs, clamber over treacherously slick rocks and disappear into dark, choppy waters to pry mollusks from the ocean floor.
"That's part of the fun, right? You get a little adrenaline going," said one enthusiast, Ken Norton. "People get hurt, of course. People fall off rocks." But he added: "There's a little bit of danger in anything -- driving around in your car."
All four deaths in California this year happened over a five-day span in Mendocino County, which usually records three or four abalone-related deaths during the entire April-through-November season.
A change in the tide, along with high winds that brought rough conditions, may have contributed to the latest deaths. The victims are believed to have drowned or died of heart attacks.
Some black out as they rush to the surface for air. Others get tangled in kelp, a kind of seaweed. Some get exhausted in the churning surf or overexert themselves prying the stubborn, snail-like creatures from rocks.
Veteran divers and even the rock-pickers who ply chest-deep waters tell of being surprised by powerful surf that has washed them over the rocks or swept them out to sea.
Anthony Kan said in 20 years of abalone picking he has seen two people die. One died from hypothermia and another drowned in the weeds. He nearly died himself when he tripped at the edge of a cliff, catching a handful of grass before going over.
"I was really lucky," the 69-year-old said.
In Sonoma County, which sees a couple of diving-related deaths a year, an abalone diver with a head wound was rescued April 15 after he fell down a 35-foot cliff.
On Saturday morning, Norton joined hundreds of wetsuit-clad hunters who scrambled down a grassy bluff and made their way over sea grass-covered boulders at Fort Ross State Historic Park. Most used masks to search the shallows for easy pickings. Some groped the rocks for the large ear-shaped shells. The more adventurous swam out farther, where they bobbed up and down between breaths of air.
Some divers awoke as early as 4 a.m. to make the winding 90-mile trek north from the San Francisco Bay area to take advantage of unusually low tides.
The conversation at the water's edge sounded like an Asian market. Divers hailing from places where abalone is a delicacy and considered an aphrodisiac -- places such as China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and South Korea -- spoke in their native tongues.
"A long time ago it was food for the king only," said Tam Vuong. "Very, very rich people can eat abalone. It's really expensive and hard to find."
With a 34 dollar fishing license, a 16 dollar abalone report card, and the requisite gear, anyone willing to brave the risks can go get abalone.
The rules are simple: Red abalone is the only species legal in California, and can be harvested north of San Francisco Bay only; the limit is three abalone per day, 24 per season; no air tanks can be used; and the abalone must be 7 inches long and be removed from the rocks with a blunt device known as an abalone iron.
While farm-raised abalone is served in some restaurants, the naturally harvested mollusks cannot legally be sold. Catch limits have been reduced over the years to protect the species, and there is no longer any commercial harvesting in the wild.
Poaching is a problem. Game warden Steve Riske hid on the bluff Saturday and used a high-powered scope to watch the activity below. Four men accused of committing a variety of infractions -- including taking too many abalone -- were handed citations, and their catch was seized.