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A School for Fish: What Abalone Aquaculture Can Teach Us About Sustainable Farming Practices

The abalone is a model citizen of the aquaculture world.  Its wild success on commercial fish farms is a hopefully-repeatable example of sustainable fishing practices.

red abalone
Red abalone is sold at the Montery Abalone Company.
Image source: Flickr user Ed Bierman

The now-collapsed commercial fishery for abalone in California is the crowning example of terrible management and overfishing.  A hundred and fifty years ago our local waters were teeming with seven different species of abalone and we had little knowledge they even existed.  Once we tasted the exquisite meat of this sea snail, we couldn’t get enough.  With always-advancing technology – such as SCUBA – the native populations of abalone were heavily exploited.  The industry reached its peak in the late 1950s, then subsequently collapsed and closed by the late 1990s.  Luckily, the abalone has proven to be easily adaptable to aquaculture.

An easily cultured shellfish

The Monterey Abalone Company cultivates native red abalones in cages that are suspended off a pier in Monterey Bay.  They are on a mission to show that they can produce the “most sustainably produced product on the planet”.  The abalone in the cages are fed once a week with kelp, or seaweed.  The kelp is hand-harvested from the abundant kelp beds that grow in the bay, cutting off more than five tons of the upper canopy of the seaweed forests.  Kelp can grow an astounding 14-18 inches every day, making it the perfect superfood for baby “abs”.

The abalone, ranging from less than 2 inches up to 6 inches, eat the kelp by grinding it with their zipper-like tongue, known as a radula.  The company feeds the abalone red algae in addition to kelp, giving the sea snails their red color.  There is plenty of red algae where wild abalone grow, but not all the farms incorporate it into the diet.  This leaves the abalone with pale shells and a bland taste.  The red algae also increases the abalone’s growth rate by 25%, taking less time to get the abalone to market size.

“They are feeding the abalone what they usually eat where they usually eat it,” said Michael Graham of Moss Landing Marine Labs in an interview with The Herald News. “They’ve pretty much taken all of the negatives out of aquaculture.”

Time itself is the final battle for abalone farmers.  Abalone grow slowly – it takes three years to reach the saleable size of 3- to 3 ½ inches, five years to grow to the 5-inch size, or about 1 pound, and eight years to reach 7 inches. But the final product is worth the wait – abalone are considered a luxury item and are usually sold as an expensive entrée – more than $60 a plate – that is often grilled, pan-fried, or sautéed and served in garlic, butter or lemon sauce.

“Across the board farmed abalone have low ecological impacts compared to other methods of aquaculture, such as salmon farming,” says Peter Bridson, the aquaculture research manager for the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program, in an interview with SF Gate.

Aquaculture to the rescue

In May 2001, the white abalone became the first marine invertebrate to receive Federal protection as an endangered species.  Even with the closure of the fishery in 1997, recent studies are indicating that the species is approaching extinction within the next 15 years.  This is where aquaculture comes to the rescue.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its partners are supporting a captive breeding program at the University of California Davis Bodega Marine Lab.

Using aquaculture techniques learned from other species that have been cultivated for commercial sale, they have recently achieved the first successful spawning of the endangered white abalone in nearly a decade.  Researchers are encouraging the mollusks to breed in an advanced facility that creates optimum lighting, temperature controls, and other mood-setting enhancements – cuing the abalone to reproduce.

If this program is successful, an entire species will be saved from the brink of extinction.  We will be able to use the techniques developed by these scientists to farm white abalone for the commercial fishery.  It hasn’t been done yet because here are few individual white abalone in captivity and it are notoriously difficult to reproduce them.  The meat of the white abalone was once prized over others in taste and texture and many seafood enthusiasts would celebrate the return of the white abalone to the market.

The goal is of course to build the population in captivity and transplant them to the wild, repopulating the Southern California subtidal zone with white abalone. “The white abalone captive breeding program, like the one at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, is quite likely the last hope to keep this species from blinking out of existence,” says Melissa Neuman, white abalone recovery coordinator at NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service in an article published on the UC Davis web site.

The researchers have their work cut out for them.  Spawning abalone can produce millions of microscopic babies, but less than 1% usually survive.  The babies that do survive will need to be kept under just the right conditions – temperature, salinity, lighting – for years before they will be able to reproduce and decades before they would be able to repopulate California with white abalone.  But the future looks promising.  The program has had amazing success so far with a dedicated team working diligently to save the white abalone.

The star of aquaculture

The idea behind aquaculture is noble and profitable.  In a perfect world they take pressure off wild populations of fish and invertebrate species and create a delicious seafood product identical to the wild fisheries. This is not always possible.  Some farmed seafood suffers from overcrowding in tanks and artificial hormones and antibiotics are added.  They often take up substantial space in the natural environment and create waste that damage nearby ecosystems.  We must often feed them many more pounds of food than are actually produced by the end product.  Many of our favorite species have life cycles that are not conducive to a farmed system, such as the anadromous salmon that spends time in both freshwater and saltwater ecosystems.

There are many species that are farmed sustainably, such as oysters, mussels, bay scallops, crawfish and numerous fish.  But the abalone takes the spotlight in the aquaculture industry.  They are easily farmed mostly because of the ease of its life cycle and appetite for fast-growing seaweed.  But abalone – and other species – are extremely valuable as a model to study and learn aquaculture techniques.  As the industry grows and evolves, Pucci Foods is committed to working with partners that practice sustainable seafood fishing and farming.  Trust us to provide you and your clients with the freshest, most environmentally safe seafood on the market.

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