Nov./Dec. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Richard Green
Abalone farming puts rare delicacy back on menus
More online: Watch this story on California Bountiful TV.
The Abalone Farm's Brad Buckley shows abalone being raised at the operation's outdoor growing area.
Before he started cooking it and serving it in his restaurant, abalone was but a sensory flashback for chef Chris Kobayashi.
He remembers the rare shellfish more as a taste and texture from his childhood, something his family used to have all the time when it was still abundant in the waters of Southern California.
"I grew up with it and then I remember it just disappeared forever," he said. "It had been so overfished that it was brought to the brink of extinction in our coastal waters."
Today, the tasty mollusk is back from oblivion and has a permanent spot on Kobayashi's Paso Robles menu, thanks to Cayucos-based The Abalone Farm—and the foresight of its founder, John Alexander, himself a huge abalone fan.
Employee Mario Aguilar, right, harvests abalone from the farm's grow-out area, so called because the abalone here are raised until they are market size, or about 3 1/4 to 5 inches in length. By the time the abalone reach this area, they are eating a diet heavy in kelp, which the farm collects offshore and transports to holding tanks, left, at the farm until feeding time.
Farming for the future
Nearly 50 years ago, back when commercial and sport fishing of abalone was still thriving in the Golden State, Alexander saw the writing on the wall: Wild populations of abalone were rapidly depleting.
With his scientific background, he also knew about the long lifespan of abalone: that it takes many years—decades, in fact—for the creatures to reach the dinner-plate size that divers back then were used to catching. Abalone grows about an inch a year for the first few years and then its growth slows considerably thereafter.
Alexander didn't need a crystal ball to see the fate of the marine snail—or what would be left of it.
"People didn't realize that taking something like that, it's not just going to bounce back the very next year, because the abalone's growth rate is so slow," said Brad Buckley, the farm's sales manager.
Alexander decided to try raising abalone in 1968. The idea, Buckley said, was to grow abalone—albeit much smaller in size than what was being caught in the wild—and provide wholesalers with a guaranteed amount each week, year-round, without the seasonal supply disruptions that they would experience with commercial diving.
It was a revolutionary idea.
"When this farm started, nobody was growing abalone in the U.S.; it was all coming from the wild," Buckley said.
Located just north of Morro Bay, today the 18-acre farm is the oldest and largest producer of farmed abalone in the nation, turning out about 100 tons of abalone each year. That weight, Buckley noted, includes the shell, with the meat accounting for just 28 to 30 percent.
In the early days, the farm was quite small and sold only locally. It took years for farmed abalone to catch on, especially for Californians, who were used to much larger wild abalone. Later, the 3 1/4-inch abalone the farm produces largely ended up in overseas markets, primarily in Asia.
Buckley joined the business in 1987, when demand for abalone was booming, especially from Japan, and the farm was expanding. Originally from Mississippi, Buckley moved to the region intending to work in the public sector but ended up applying for a job at the farm's hatchery and nursery division as a workhand.
"The only thing I knew of abalone was that it's some sort of shellfish that lives in the ocean," he said. "I didn't know it was a big part of the food culture here. I certainly didn't know people would be growing it."
This abalone is at least 6 years old and 5 inches in shell length.
Wild delicacy in decline
Around this time, California abalone numbers suffered severe declines due to intense fishing, environmental changes and a bacterial disease known as withering foot syndrome that hit abalone stocks hard. By 1997, the state's commercial abalone fishery was shut down. In 2001, white abalone, one of seven known abalone species in California, was protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Black abalone followed in 2009.
At one time, though, abalone was so common along the state's coastlines that Chinese-Americans, beginning in the 1850s, were able to fish for them in small boats during low tides or in shallow waters, with peak landings of 4.1 million pounds in 1879, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Abalone populations flourished during this time because their main predator, the sea otter, had been decimated by the fur trade.
Today, it is illegal to catch abalone commercially. Recreational fishing is allowed only north of San Francisco Bay, with strict limits on take and only by free diving, meaning without air tanks.
Most people hankering for a taste of the delicacy will have to look to aquaculture farms, of which there are about a handful in the state that raise and sell abalone, including The Abalone Farm, which produces red abalone.
A 4-month-old abalone is so small that it fits on a fingertip, above left. The farm grows dulse seaweed, above right, which is blended with algae slurry to make a seaweed smoothie used as food for young abalone. Above, 1-year-old abalone cling to a piece of plastic pipe at the farm's outdoor growing area.
Growing at a snail's pace
The Abalone Farm's land-based operation starts indoors for the spawning process, using wild abalone that the farm obtains through a state permit. Abalone reproduce by broadcast spawning as do fish, releasing their eggs and sperm into the water, where fertilization occurs externally. To control this process better, workers at the farm place the abalone in separate buckets of seawater and later collect the eggs and sperm to help with fertilization.
During the first few weeks, when the abalone are still microscopic, they stay in the indoor hatchery, feeding on algae that the farm also grows outdoors. Then they're transferred to the farm's nursery when they're 3 months old and about the size of the head of a pin.
By 10 months, when they're about the size of a fingernail, they're eating kelp, which the farm harvests offshore. The abalone are then moved outdoors to floating baskets with plastic pipes, which give the abalone foot—the part you eat—something to hang onto. They stay there for two years, until they're almost 2 inches in shell length. After that, they go to the farm's grow-out section until they reach market size, usually by year four.
Whereas the farm shipped most of its product overseas in the past, almost all of it stays in the U.S. now, with the majority going to West Coast markets, Buckley said.
Kobayashi describes the taste and texture of abalone as closely related to cooked clam, octopus or calamari. Because the abalone foot is pure muscle, is it tough and requires pounding before cooking. And if cooked properly, he said, "it's tender and yields to the bite."
At $5 an ounce wholesale, Kobayashi said the biggest challenge for him as a chef and restaurateur is the cost, which must account for the years invested in producing that ounce of meat. At Artisan, his restaurant in Paso Robles, the abalone dish goes for $19, even though he said he really should be charging around $32. But he said he doesn't think anyone would pay that price, so he chooses to take a loss on the abalone and make up the cost elsewhere.
"Is it ideal? No. Is it a great menu item to showcase what California can do? Yes, absolutely, by all means," he said.
Chef Chris Kobayashi serves pan-fried abalone at Artisan restaurant in Paso Robles.
Rare shellfish, done well
Chris Kobayashi has prepared abalone in myriad ways, including raw—sashimi style or in ceviche—on a tostada and even as part of a ramen-noodle dish, using the abalone trim to create the broth. But he said his favorite way to eat it is the way he's serving it now: breaded and pan-fried in butter.
The key, he said, is to keep it simple, so that the taste of the abalone doesn't become muddled or lost.
"You need not do much to it, because the abalone really does show well on its own," he said. "I approach it as something that should be revered, because it has reappeared on menus and it's something to be highlighted on your dish."
Pan-fried abalone with avocado, gremolata, and green goddess dressing