Abalone's luster grows

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
1 March 2007, at 12:00am

US - Shortly before it ends in the ocean, Municipal Wharf No. 2 in Monterey Bay runs through a seafood warehouse that looks like a garage. A man paces by the front door, waiting. Sure enough, in 10 minutes, a trap door in the middle of the floor swings open and a tall, lanky fellow wearing rubber boots springs up the ladder.

It's Art Seavey, 49, co-owner of Monterey Abalone Co. At first glance, it looks like he is holding a handful of gray rocks, but they're live abalone. He gently lays them on a sheet of foam inside heavy plastic, clamps the bag, pumps in oxygen and seals it. He hands the package to the customer, takes cash, thanks him and waves him goodbye. Then it's back down the trapdoor to the ocean below where Seavey has a system of cages and pulleys to harvest the abalone.

Although they work mostly in isolation and obscurity, 10 years after the ban on commercially harvesting wild abalone went into effect, local growers are successfully producing the unique seafood delicacy.

California now has 15 abalone farms, constituting a business that, over the last seven or eight years, "has flourished and become more of a standard farming procedure," says Roy Gordon of FishTech, a worldwide abalone-farming consulting firm based in San Rafael.

Farmed abalone is the only type available for retail sale, although private divers may still hunt for abalone according to a strictly enforced quota.

Four-star restaurants such as the French Laundry in Yountville and Manresa in Los Gatos are putting farmed abalone on their menus, and Bay Area Cantonese- and Hong Kong-style restaurants -- where fresh means live -- display the shellfish in tanks.

Thomas Keller of the French Laundry uses them occasionally, and most often in a scallopine (a gently pounded steak) preparation.

David Kinch of Manresa uses abalone regularly on his fixed-price menu. He says they are more tender than wild abalone.

Still, abalone farmers struggle in obscurity, and do battle on many fronts.

The farms, such as Monterey Abalone Co., are often invisible, with "livestock" hidden under water. Customers come from a small and dedicated base -- predominantly private Asian buyers or fine-dining restaurants. The farmers are lone figures cleaning and hauling cages out of water to cull and feed their critters; by dawn, they harvest tons of wild kelp from the ocean as feed for their farms. Seavey spends his days in the underworld of the city's pier, walking on planks between the pilings.

He's buffeted by the elements as well as strict regulations from state agencies. Yet the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list awards farmed abalone a green light for good use of environmental resources; low risk for disease and escape, impact on habitat and pollution; and management practices.

"Aquaculture has been painted with a very negative brush because of the negative effects of salmon farming,'' says Corey Peet, aquaculture analyst with the aquarium, but "all aquaculture is not created equal. Abalone is at the upper end of the good scale."

Californians are wary of fish farms. On top of that, there is the not-in-my-backyard attitude, says Peet.

Coastal property in California is some of the most expensive in the world, and owners protect their views. Seavey and other farmers, such as the soon-to-open Doug Hayes' California Abalone Co. in Half Moon Bay, have permits to harvest seaweed but say that they are dogged by residents who see them gathering kelp and report them to law enforcement. Kelp, which grows in forests in Monterey Bay, is the conventional feed for abalone.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle