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The rough tumble of waves smacking against rocks, bone chilling water, and mortality statistics—in 2015, eight people died in Northern California while diving for abalone, deter a lot of people from trying to harvest Red Abalone. Divers aren’t allowed to use a tank, and so free dive into murky water, brush aside long tangles of bull kelp, and they take this mollusk by surprise with a crow bar, burning lungs and popping ears aside-- lest it clamps onto a rock and you can never get it off. It’s a good thing that this sport is challenging and limited by size, season, and how many abalone each diver is allowed, so they aren't overfished, even recreationally. As well, this is only permitted in Mendocino and parts of the North Sonoma Coast. This is due to their relative abundance up north. They were drastically overharvested in Central and Southern California until the late 1990's, and pollution has taken a toll. As well, down in Central California, sea otters are now thriving, and these are one of their favorite snacks.
California is in the heart of Red Abalone territory, which stretches from British Columbia to Baja, Mexico. So it’s natural that abalone farms should find this suitable habitat. American Abalone Farms consists of tanks with fresh seawater pumping through, and seaweed floating in them, this mollusk’s favorite food,
Our neighbor just up Highway 1, American Abalone Farms, in Davenport on the “Slow Coast” has built up their business over the years; they started with 50 seawater tanks in 1989 and have grown to over 3000 today, with more being installed every day. We talked with the founder, Tom Ebert on why he decided to farm this beautiful, strange, iridescent snail.
Real Good Fish: Why did you get into the abalone business?
Tom Ebert: My father was a research biologist for Fish & Game, at a lab south of Carmel. It’s now water quality lab. Back in the late 60’s, he did research behind farming abalone, oysters, clam, and lobsters. Since I was 10 years old, I spent time in the lab and was exposed to it. I then got my masters at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory and my focus in grad school was abalone. After I graduated, I was looking around for a career, and an abalone farm seemed a good opportunity. There was demand for live seafood, and this is only growing, especially sustainably produced. Farmed abalone are labeled “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, and a lot of our customers and restaurants are asking for that.
Real Good Fish: What makes your farming operation sustainable?
Our abalone is native to this region and produced in the way it would live its natural life. We feed them wild, local seaweed. In contrast, salmon farms use processed foods that may have genetically modified ingredients in them. As well, farmed salmon can escape and create genetic problems with natural stocks. There are also a lot of problems with farmed shrimp. For example, in many developing countries, they are destroying mangrove swamps, which, like our estuaries here, are critical for many species. In these places, they literally bulldoze mangroves, use the site for 3-5 years then move on and leave a wasteland behind it.
People don’t want to contribute to this destruction taking place with unsustainable aquaculture. We are using seaweed, and pumping seawater water from the ocean. And these are the same abalone you pull off of a rock up north.
Real Good Fish: What are some of the challenges of farming abalone?
We feed them wild seaweed, and so during the winter months, this can be a challenge. If it’s stormy, we can’t take a boat out and seaweed grows primarily in the summer. Luckily, bull kelp washes up on our beaches. A lot of countries like Chile and South Africa have started using processed foods for abalone, that often have types of fish meal and seaweed. The sales people for this feed contact all the time. I’m not interested in that. We use all natural, wild harvested food.
Real Good Fish: What’s your favorite thing about being in the abalone business?
The older generation around here remembers when abalone was plentiful-it used to be off Big Sur, you could even go out on Cannery Row during low tide and collect it. Those days are no longer here. Historically abalone has a lot of significance, and now people can get it from farms like us. I like it when people come in, try our product and tell us, “It’s really nice to come to your farm and get your products.” As well, lots of people die diving trying to abalone, and it’s so valuable, the incentive is there for people to poach to make money.
We used to ship most of it around the world. From about 1996-2004, we shipped the majority to Japan. Now our biggest markets are domestic. It’s sold mostly to Asian stores here, and high end restaurants. Though it’s now being sold at farmers markets to local people, and that business is booming. There’s more and more interest.
Real Good Fish: What’s You Favorite Way to Prepare Abalone?
I like our abalone steaks, vs. taking them out of the shell. It’s a lot less work, so I promote the steaks. You can just take them home, and saute with Italian bread crumbs. This recipe on our website is popular. Our Asian customers prefer live abalone and tell me about the different ways they prepare them- raw, steam, and soup. For ideas, visit here.
For a video on cleaning and preparing Abalone Sashimi, visit Here.
Find our Recipe for Panko-Crusted Abalone served with Lime-Tarragon Aioli
Find our Recipe for Abalone-Nori Rolls by Thomas Hill Organics