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Japanese Abalone

What are Abalone?

            In The Sound of Waves, a peddler proposes a contest between Japanese pearl diving women, offering a fancy-looking ostrich-skin or cobalt handbag to whoever collects the most abalone.  Japanese abalone, opposed to the three to five inch larger red abalone, are a small type of mollusk. Also known as “sea ears” referring to their flat shell, Japanese abalone live in the rocky reefs of the Western Pacific. Their color ranges from varieties of dark olive green dappled with dark red, brown, and lighter green on the outer shell to a pearl color on the inner shell.  They grow to an average of about three inches and weigh up to three and half ounces. 


Most abalone are found in the ten-meter depth of low tide where they feed on the algae that grows on the rocky bottoms of coral reefs.  Due to the broken shells and rough coral, Uta-Jima pearl divers suffer from many foot wounds. 


The broad “foot” by which abalone cling to rocks is the edible portion, the adductor muscle.  This part of the mollusk is pounded  to tenderize before cooking.  Abalone can be obtained fresh, canned, dried, or salted.  Fresh abalone should still be alive, which can be tested by touching the exposed muscle to see if it twitches.  When fresh, one should choose relatively small and sweet, not fishy smelling, abalone.  Best sautéed, this mollusk must be cooked about a day within purchase.  However, when dried abalone is used in traditional Japanese dishes like awabi sakami, meaning “Sweet-Cooked Abalone,” it must be soaked for several days before using.  All abalone should be cooked very briefly (only about twenty to thirty seconds) to prevent tough meat. 


Not until 1901 did fifteen divers from Wakayama-ken region in Western Japan institute the first abalone fishery.  These divers used large, open rowboats containing a crew of five to six men, equipped with Japanese helmets and a hand pump to compress air down to the diver.  Divers used pry bars to remove the abalone from the rocks, store the catch in a net sack, and tie a rope lifeline so the “tender”, or the diver’s assistant on the boat above, could haul up a sixty pound sack and send it back empty. 

Abalone Today

Along with Japan, other countries such as America, China, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, have continued to modernize the fishery with engine-driven boats equipped with motorized air compressors.  In The Sound of Waves, the women lack any equipment other then their bare hands.  Due to California’s population explosion post-World War II, Japanese and red abalone became a booming industry until California banned the commercial harvesting of abalone in 1997 due to over-production, pollution, and sea otters bringing abalone to near extinction.  However, Hawaii’s Big Island Abalone Corporation has made up for California’s absence, yielding about a  $1.2 million harvesting of Japanese abalone. 


“Abalone Fishery.” Los Angeles Maritime Museum.  1999-2002: n. p. 11 October
     2002. <http://www.lamaritimemuseum.org/abalone.htm>.

“Awabi Sakami.” Recipe Source. 2002. 21 October 2002.

Sing, Terrence. “Aquafarm to Turn 300,000 Abalone into a Million Clams.” Pacific
     Business News.  3 September 2001: n. p. 11 October 2002.      <http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-sq=aquafarm+to+turn+abalone>.

Systematic Classification: Abalone. 11 October 2002.