Traditionally, the Santa Barbara Channel has been one of the richest fishing areas of the Pacific coast. Yet, a commercial fishing industry did not develop in the Santa Barbara area until the 1870s. By the turn of the century, Santa Barbara was home to one of California’s most successful fishing enterprises.
Important to the early development of the local fishing industry was the abalone fishery. The Chumash utilized the colorful shells of the abalone for adornment and as a medium of exchange. Fish was not an important part of the diets of either the South Coast’s Spanish or Mexican settlers, so it was not until the arrival of the Chinese in this area in the mid 1860s that fishing for abalone became a significant industry.
The Chinese harvested the abalone along the mainland and around the Channel Islands. The meat was boiled, dried, salted, and shipped to San Francisco, where part of the catch was sold to that city’s large Chinese community. The rest was transported to China, the primary market for abalone meat. A small amount also found its way to the Hawaiian Islands.
The first Chinese to fish for abalone around the Channel Islands were actually from the San Diego area, which was the center of the California abalone fishery during these early days. Eventually, there were fishing camps on most of the Channel Islands. By modern standards, abalone was incredibly abundant in the Santa Barbara Channel. The fishermen would wade along the shore or float among the shoals in small boats, using poles to pry the shellfish off the rocks and gaffs to recover the creatures.
The meat was then removed from the shells, bagged, pounded to tenderize it, then boiled and dried. Drying could take up to six weeks, and it took around six tons of abalone to produce one ton of dried meat. In the early 1870s, one pound of abalone meat cost around five cents in the San Francisco retail market. It remained a delicacy almost solely for the Chinese palate until the early 1920s. One Anglo newspaperman in the mid 1880s compared eating abalone to the consumption of shoe leather.
Yet during the course of the 1870s, a market also developed for abalone shells. This did strike the fancy of the population beyond the Chinese, and by the late 1880s, a pound of shells sold for over twice the price of a pound of meat. Markets developed not only in San Francisco and China but also in the eastern U.S. and in Europe. In the latter two regions, the shells were used to make a wide variety of items, including flower vases, jewelry, and buttons.
Figures from 1879 give an idea about the extent of the local industry. During the course of the year, some 500,000 pounds of abalone shells were harvested along the South Coast and the Channel Islands, with a value of over $12,000. By 1900, the abalone was seriously overfished and some California counties began to pass ordinances to control the taking of the mollusks by limiting fishing to deep-water areas. Japanese deep-water divers, capable of holding their breath for long periods, began to take over the industry. In 1915, the State of California basically outlawed the shipment of abalone meat to China. This, plus the decline in popularity of abalone shells, ended the heyday of the abalone fishing industry.
Abalone continued to be harvested; two-thirds of the state’s catch came from in and around the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in the mid 1970s. By the end of the century, abalone was nearing extinction in this area, and commercial harvesting in California waters was effectually all but ended during the 1990s. Hopefully, with time, the population of this mollusk will rebound.