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Hunt for Sea Delicacy Taking a Toll in California

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.

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