Northern abalones are reported as a very important shellfish for many Indigenous Peoples of the West Coast of North America, including the Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth), Haida, Nuxalk, Manhousat and the people of Port Simpson (Tsimshian) [1-6].
Abalones were collected year round by some Indigenous Peoples, but were generally collected in spring by all who had access [1, 4, 7-11]. They were collected during low tide and to a greater extent in the months when fish is scarce, but shellfish plentiful . Some summers had red tide or ‘poison tide,’ and abalone would not be collected then [7, 8]. The Nootka did not collect abalone in March when the herring were spawning because abalone consumed the spawn and became “milky”, and thereby were regarded as poor for consumption . Abalone were churned up on beaches following storms, and available for picking by villagers . Some inland communities, like the Gitksan (Gitxsan), obtained abalone through trade .
Women were reported as usually responsible for gathering shellfish, including abalone [4, 7, 14-16]. Abalone could be difficult to spot and to pry off rocks because of shell features . A prying stick was often used which was a one and a half foot long stick with a tongue-shaped end that was adzed as thin as possible and sharpened often to be effectively forced under the abalone . Also used was a three-prong pole made by inserting stout nails at one end .
Abalone was usually eaten raw [2, 4, 7, 17, 18]. It was pried open and the slimy black covering around the edges scraped off [2, 7]. It was also noted as being boiled or cooked in butter after beating and scarring. Abalone can be canned, but this was noted as infrequent due to the considerable amount of time and scrubbing required. Abalone was also occasionally strung and dried, smoked, or sliced and dried on cedar bark twine [2, 4, 8, 10, 17]. After abalone was hung, dried or smoked it could be packed in airtight boxes for storage for winter use [10, 17].
For many Indigenous Peoples abalone was eaten daily in season, in large quantities and available to all [4, 12]. For some, such as the Haida, abalone was not prestigious because of its wide availability , but for others, like the Tlingit and Gitksan, it was relished and was considered a delicacy [13, 19]. Abalone was used for trade, and, in addition, the shells were used for necklaces, head dresses, money, ornaments, cutting tools, eating implements and gambling chips [6, 13, 20-22].
1. Port Simpson Curriculum Committee: Port Simpson Foods: A Curriculum Development Project. In. Prince Rupert: The People of Port Simpson and School District No. 52; 1983.
2. Ellis DW, Swan L: Teachings of The Tides: Uses of Marine Invertebrates By The Manhousat People, vol. 1st edition. Nanaimo, B.C.: Theytus Books Ltd.; 1981.
3. Hilton SF: Haihais, Bella Bella, and Oowekeeno. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 312-316.
4. Kenyon SM: The Kyuquot Way: A Study of a West Coast (Nootkan) Community, vol. Paper No. 61 (Canadian Ethnology Service). Ottawa: National Museums of Canada; 1980.
5. Kuhnlein HV: Traditional and Contemporary Nuxalk Foods. Nutrition Research 1984, 4:789-809.
6. Olsen SL: Animals in American Indian Life: An Overview. In: Stars Above, Earth Below American Indians and Nature. edn. Edited by Bol MC. Dublin: Roberts Rinehart Publishers; 1998: 95-118.
7. Arima EY: The West Coast People: The Nootka of Vancouver Island and Cape Flattery, vol. Special Publication No. 6. Victoria, B.C.: British Columbia Provincial Musem; 1983.
8. Emmons GT: Food and Its preparation. In: The Tlingit Indians. edn. Edited by de Laguna F. New York: American Museum of Natural History; 1991: 140-153.
9. Halpin MM, Seguin M: Tsimshian Peoples: Southern Tsimshian, Coast Tsimshian, Nishga, and Gitksan. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 267-271.
10. Oberg K: The Annual Cycle of Production. In: The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. edn.: University of Washington Press; 1973: 65.
11. Wolcott HF: A Kwakiutl Village and School. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1967.
12. Blackman MB: Haida: Traditional Culture. In: The Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute; 1990: 240-245.
13. The People of 'Ksan: Gathering What the Great Nature Provided. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, Ltd.; 1980.
14. Drucker P: Indians of the Northwest Coast. New York: The natural History Press; 1955.
15. Reynolds B: Beothuk. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15: Northeast. edn. Edited by Trigger BG. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1978: 101-108.
16. Snow DR: Eastern Abenaki. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15: Northeast. edn. Edited by Trigger BG. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1978: 137-139.
17. de Laguna F: Tlingit. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 203-212.
18. Emmons GT: The Tahltan Indians, vol. Anthropological Publications Vol. IV No. 1. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania: The Museum; 1911.
19. Jacobs M, Jr., Jacobs M, Sr.: Southeast Alaska Native Foods. In: Raveu's Bones. edn. Edited by Hope A; 1982: 112-130.
20. Eells M: The Indians of Puget Sound: The Notebooks of Myron Eells. Seattle: University of Washington Press; 1985.
21. Renker AM, Gunther E: Makah. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsinian Institution; 1990: 422-426.
22. Wessen G: Prehistory of the Ocean Coast of Washington. In: Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast. edn. Edited by Suttles W. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution; 1990: 412-419.
Abalones are seas snails and include seven North American species, but only the northern abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana) occurs in Canada, living in coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean, from Alaska to California. In the western United States, the species is known as ‘Pinto’ abalone and the French name is ormeau nordique.
Adult abalones have an ear-shaped shell with a wide opening for the body. The typical spiral part of the snail shell is reduced and very flat in the abalone. There is a single row of holes along one side of the shell that are used in respiration, excretion and reproduction. In northern abalones, the outside of the shell is usually mottled reddish or greenish with areas of white and blue, but an orange coloured variant also occurs. The inside of the shell is pearly white with faint iridescence of pink and green. A large, broad muscle referred to as the foot takes up most of the space inside the abalone shell. This foot is used for attachment and movement. Other soft body parts include a ruffle of tissue with sensory tentacles called an epipodium, the mantle that lies between the shell and the muscle, organs related to digestion, respiration, circulation and reproduction located in a circle surrounding the muscular foot, and the head that includes a mouth, two oral tentacles, two eyes, and a radula consisting of flexible bands of sharp hooked teeth.
The northern abalones occupy rocky shores in the intertidal zone and shallow subtidal waters. They require full salinity seawater and access to kelp and other macro-algae food sources. The life cycle of abalones includes a short larval planktonic stage, followed by a multi-year juvenile stage when a majority of individuals hide in crevices, followed finally by an adult stage when the shell is fully formed and individuals adhere to exposed surfaces.
The northern abalone has undergone significant population declines off the coast of British Columbia since the 1970’s as a result of over-harvest, predation by recovering sea otter populations, and habitat loss or alteration. A total moratorium on northern abalone harvest was imposed Fisheries and Oceans Canada in 1990. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife designated the species as threatened in 2000, then re-examined and designated it as endangered in April 2009. The Northern Abalone is particularly vulnerable to over-harvest because mature individuals tend to accumulate in shallow water where they are easily accessible to harvesters.
COSEWIC: COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the Northern Abalone Haliotis kamtschatkana in Canada. In. Ottawa: Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada; 2009: 48.