Abalone: Absolutely Appetizing and Sustainably Appealing

By Ross Johnston
March 15, 2017

Live red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) harvested from an above ground, closed tank aquaculture system in Point Castillo, Santa Barbara, California. Photo by Ross Johnston/Sea to Table

While mass media advises the consumer to select wild-caught seafood rather than farm-raised, an aquaculture farm in Monterey, California is rising to the challenge to re-educate the consumer about why farm-raised abalone is a superior sustainability choice. The Monterey Abalone Company’s distinct approach to aquaculture is igniting interest in sustainable shellfish farming practices.

Its domestically-sourced red abalone is farmed in specialized suspended cages below Monterey’s Municipal Wharf. This unique aquaculture system provides the gastropods with a thermo-regulated enclosure, naturally cooled, and filtered by seawater. Housing the abalone in open suspended cages minimizes seafood impacts, allows the tides to circulate the water, removes animal waste, and eliminates the need for mechanical filtration devices.

Its 150,000 abalones must grow to a minimum diameter of 3.5 inches to be considered marketable. One problem of fish-based aquaculture is the resource intensive process of providing food. Gastropods, on the other hand, are fed native California giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera). These massive brown algae can grow approximately two feet per day. The aquaculturists trim only the top of the kelp to feed to the growing abalone so neither the kelp’s health nor the surrounding ecosystem are compromised.

This contrasts with unsustainable international practices whereby abalone are raised in “sea ranches,” essentially underwater grazing pastures for farmed abalone. This free-range pasture environment may appear ideal, but large areas of the seafloor must be modified, which causes significant damage to fragile kelp forest ecosystems. In addition, potential predatory species and other grazing species are removed to ensure they neither compete with the abalone for food sources nor harm the abalone.

Other California-based abalone farms practice above-ground “closed tank” systems which, according to Seafood Watch, “…often have less effluent, disease, escapes, and habitat impacts than other aquaculture systems.” They are the more common method, and nearly an equivalent and sustainable alternative to Monterey Abalone Company’s production methods – with the exception of energy concerns to maintain the tank systems, water pumps, and waste discharge.

Culinary trends and consumption culture are now dictating a move towards alternative and sustainable marine protein. The educated consumer is increasingly aware of declining stocks of common commercial species, such as salmon and tuna. Salmon, and other top trophic aquatic predators, are difficult to raise to maturity in an aquaculture system because of several inherent variables, such as pesticide-contaminated run-off, fish meal volume, and waste discharge concerns. Conversely, invertebrate aquaculture, such as abalone, can be highly sustainable with minimal negative ecological impact.

The Monterey Abalone Company is responsibly balancing the market and the environment by establishing a new statewide mollusk sustainability standard. They are integrating the sustainability assessment provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and the current stock population management reports by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Monterey Abalone Company follows NOAA’s species guidelines and only farms red abalone (Haliotis rufescens), the largest native species found in Northern California. The aquaculture company has targeted this particular species in an attempt to revitalize the commercial fishery, now extinct due to previous decades of unsustainable overharvesting.

“Of the seven abalone species in California, two are already federally listed as endangered – the black and the white. It was considered free food and now has become an endangered species.” (May, 2014) Years of fishery mismanagement combined with weak regulation led California to completely ban commercial abalone fishing, thus promoting the stock recovery of the West Coast’s seven native and threatened abalone species. According to the updated fishery policy administered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the red abalone is the only remaining genera of the State’s abalone species than can be legally farmed and commercially distributed, but the mandates preventing zero distribution of wild-caught species remain in place.

Monterey Abalone Company is attempting to redesign how the contemporary seafood gourmand views this gourmet gastropod. By creating an enclosure that ties in the gastropod’s natural habitat and food source, without harming the natural balance of this recovering ecosystem and commercial stock, abalone sustainability and biomass are both increasing. The company’s efforts to establish a new standard for California’s mollusk sustainability is working to benefit both the ecosystem and the consumer. The informed consumer should be asking where and how their seafood was harvested and Monterey Abalone Company is making an effort to educate the seafood consumer. The results are two-fold:  debunking the public’s skewed perception of aquaculture as an unsustainable production method; and, responsibly providing sustainably farmed abalone.

Works Cited:

Langdon, Christopher, and Michael Buchal. Use of the Red Macroalga, Palmaria Mollis, in Improving Hatchery Seed Production of the Red Sea Abalone, Haliotis Rufescens. Rep. no. GRANT Number: NA46FD0418, NMFS Number: 93-NWR-023. Newport, OR: Hatfield Marine Science Center, Oregon State U, 1996. NOAA Fisheries. Web.

May, Meredith. “Tasty Abalone Carefully Farmed under Monterey’s Wharf.” SFGate. San Francisco Chronicle, 8 Mar. 2014. Web.

Neuman, Melissa. “Abalone.” West Coast Region. NOAA Fisheries Service, Aug. 2016. Web.

Seafood Watch. “Abalone Recommendations.” Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide. Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation, 19 July 2016. Web.

Shuman, Craig. Invertebrates of Interest: Abalone Report Card. Rep. no. Marine Region (Region 7). California Department of Fish and Wildlife, 31 Jan. 2016. Web.

Wu, Olivia. “Abalone’s Luster Grows / Eco-friendly Aquaculture Lures Endangered Mollusk Back onto Bay Area Menus.” SFGate. San Francisco Chronicle, 28 Feb. 2007. Web.