The Abalone Craze

The Foraging Wars: Extreme Eating Hits California

The locavore craze has gone beyond just a trendy activity. In California, tourists have been pitted against career foragers, causing problems for wild mushrooms and abalone.

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A block away from San Francisco’s Ferry Building at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday, Paul Grosz is piling produce in his trunk quickly, like it’s a getaway car, so he can leave the Farmer’s Market as fast as possible before the foodie tourists swarm in. “You can end up behind someone who acts like this is Portlandia and wants to know every detail about the day-to-day existence of the fiddle head fern frond he’s about to buy,” he says about the newest variety turning up at the outdoor market: the finicky slow-food tourist.

Increasingly, those same picky eaters are gathering their own wild edibles in the great outdoors, or dining out in the type of restaurants that cater to wild tastes. While suspicions about the impact of this back to the (public) land trend on the environment have been mounting, this year there is hard evidence of what over foraging can do to at least one species. California Fish and Wildlife will shut down the most popular section of the California coastline because of over fishing of abalone, the popular expensive delicacy that can fetch more than $100 a piece on the black market.

Egged on by blogs and apps and YouTube videos that demonstrate how to turn backyard weeds into dinner, or how to find chewing gum from spruce trees ( “Hard and crumbly with pieces of bark and bits of insects,” according to “Eat The Weeds” forager Deane Green), the New Foragers have been hitting the trail hard. Too hard, it seems.

They aren’t dumpster diving for freebies with nest-bearded hipsters in urban parks “above the dog line,” but rather are flying halfway around the world to join organized tours that cost more than even the most expensive matsutakes (fancy mushrooms), raiding nature on outings that are a far cry from backpacking. Going fungal is going viral—and increasingly more upscale.

In Eugene, Oregon, known as the “Berkeley of the North,” where the words “recreational” and “mushroom” usually mean something illegal—a few hundred people paid about a month’s rent (between $695-$1,050) to fly in to the Oregon Truffle Festival for a weekend that sounds more Downton Abbey than Hodgepodge Lodge. First, they hunted the high-end mushrooms with specially trained dogs, and then they ate the evidence at an elaborate truffle-laced meal. The trip sold out fast in its ninth year.

Other destination foraging trips have been popping up around the globe. Daniel Winkler brings groups to Bolivia, Colombia, and Tibet on Mushroaming Tours for just under $3,000 for two weeks (airfare costs extra). The Colombia trip includes foraging from forests outside Bogotá and eyeing orchids in Medellín (not edible). In Tibet, Kathy Welch, an oncology nurse, took a hike-and-pick trip that included stays in hotels and cost about $7,000 for two weeks, all-in.

For those of us more accustomed to foraging in the produce aisle, searching under leaves for food sounds like something our ancestors did in the Old Country…because they were being chased. But the locavores insist on the fresh flavor and the recreation. To them, it’s as much about the hunt as the peckishness. “I love the forest and the tree vistas and looking at the mushrooms,” Welch says.

“Have you tasted a morel?” is the answer Mike Kempenich, Chief Fungi (get it?) at the Mikeology Store in Minneapolis gives to explain the mushrooming trend. Yes, truffles are delicious, so was the Ahi Tuna salad I had for lunch, but I’m not compelled to set sail when I feel like fish. And if tens of thousands of people nationwide are tramping into the woods with baskets and clippers, is this new slow food obsession slowly choking the environment?

In some parts of the world, the answer that was once a “maybe” is now a resounding “yes.”

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has been measuring the density of red abalone along the shoreline for more than a decade. For the first time since the program started, they are closing off the most popular section of coastline at Fort Ross in Mendocino County to all harvesters due to what environmental scientist Jerry Kashiwada calls “fishing pressure.” Kashiwada expects the closure to last until the species can recover. In the case of the excruciatingly slow-growing red abalone, this could be ten to twelve years. In addition, when the season opens on April 1, officials will be limiting the take in the less popular foraging locations that will remain open from its longstanding maximum of 24 to 18 abalone, only nine of which can be from Sonoma and Marin counties. They’re also fine tuning the fishing start time to reduce fishing opportunity (it has to do with tides), all in response to falling density levels of the snail delicacy. “Too many abalone are being taken,” Kashiwada says.

In New Zealand, researcher Michael Hall wishes there were more regulations to relieve the pressure he’s noticed on the high quality foraging spots there. Hall, a forager himself, found that foodie TV shows helped fan the embers of what was already a Maori tradition of gathering and fishing to ignite an urban craze. “More foraging pressure is being placed on locations with good water quality, as in the case of watercress.”

In Salt Point State Park in Sonoma County, California, where it’s legal to pick up to five pounds of mushrooms—if you can find them, which is harder still in this drought-stricken year—Park Ranger Todd Farcau says visitor numbers are “expanding exponentially” and impacting the land.

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“If it’s edible, people take it, if not people destroy it,” he says.

Salt Point is also the setting of a cautionary tale about foraging that has spread like a fungus among the mycological community. People I spoke with all cite the “mushroom wars” raging on the California coast for the limited supply, a result, foraging evangelist and author Langdon Cook attributes to mismanagement. “In California, bureaucrats have adapted a ‘museum under glass’ approach, and foraging is closed on most public land. You end up funneling all the foragers into the few places it’s allowed.”

Even so, Farcau points not only to weekend warriors but also commercial foragers who contribute to the problem. Someone has to provide the food that goes on the menu at the restaurants where the foodies want to eat. Those are commercial middlemen, difficult to police, especially when State Park rangers are already underfunded; most civilians aren’t as revved up to become toadstool stoolies, unlike the vigilante patrols enforcing the intricate card tagging system for abalone.

I arrived at Salt Point anticipating Mad Max levels of destruction. Compared to other hikes in Northern California, even those within thirty minutes of the Bay Area, the trails popular with foragers immediately seemed far less pristine.

Every few yards, I saw what rangers call “volunteer” trails, which have nothing to do with altruism, but are rogue routes people take to get off road and look for mushrooms. Broken twigs, trails to nowhere, and mini-debris landslides, despite the drought, were all telltale signs of heavy use.

Just four miles south in the regional Stillwater Cove Park where a sign expressly warns against mushroom picking, tiny shoots, ferns, and even quivering purple wildflowers smaller than a pinky fingernail are lush, abundant, and undisturbed all along the trail to the beach. It’s as though it’s a different part of the world.

Farcau also raises the specter of a Silent Spring effect: what about the mushrooms that might have been left behind? “You are taking a food source out of the park. Deer eat them, raccoons eat them, banana slugs, and salamanders all eat them. Other animals might eat the insects. It’s a miniature environment, everything is interrelated. Do we know how many thousands of pounds of food have been taken out? It’s impossible to say.”

The concern is taking root on the East Coast, too. Roy Reehil, who runs The Forager Press, an internet publishing company, worries, too. He’s been foraging for wild leeks and fiddle head ferns, among other edibles, in the Tug Hill region of the Southern Adirondacks since the 1990s and has noticed a recent shift from sustainable foraging—leaving plants to grow the following season—to people raiding patches for wild leeks that, like onions, grow underground. “You see a whole area dug up, people just pull them up by the roots and take every single one. They’re not going to come back.” He blames economic hard times and people who have turned what was once a hobby into a source of income.

In Minnesota, Kempenich, brings groups into the forest 200 miles north of Minneapolis for overnight forays. “You might be in a giant forest but the mushrooms are in a small area, and if you have hundreds of people for weeks on end coming through there, then there will be damage to the surrounding plant life and the surrounding forest.” He encourages sustainable picking, which means choosing different locations each trip. There is talk of imposing limits, but nothing has been adopted yet. “You could end up with too many people in the woods, but also too many regulations. It’s a very fine line.”

And while certain species of plants are resilient, especially underground fungi that fruit only when conditions are perfect, the wild places where people find them are not. David Campbell who brings his MycoVentures mushroom tourists to Piedmont and Tuscany is confident mushrooms will always bounce back from over-picking, but acknowledges that, “habitat destruction and degeneration is the true enemy of mushroom populations.”

More regulations, and further public education may be required to cap and stem the collateral damage.