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February 27, 1986|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

CAYUCOS, Calif. — Natural predators, poachers and pollution have combined to make the abalone's Pacific Ocean home decidely inhospitable. The future for this prized shellfish now lies within a series of bubbling, seawater-wfilled tanks atop a rocky Morro Bay bluff. There, the abalone fights to stay off the endangered species list.

In a stunt worth the attention of Sea World, Frank Oakes breaks off a thick strand of kelp and holds it just above the water line of a rectangular cement tank.

Within a moment, a saucer-size, red abalone breaks from underneath the surface, slowly rears out of its shell and envelops the yellow stalk.

"That is the feeding pose of the hungry abalone. I've even seen them wrestle for a kelp branch," Oakes says, as the marine snail methodically begins to strip and devour the rubbery sea plant with both the speed and determination of a glacier.

This vignette of aquatic magic indicates the unique nature of Abalone Farm Inc., where 750,000 of these home-grown mollusks have been spared the stress and rigors of ocean living. Instead, the animals lead a life of comparative luxury while never having to fret over shell-cracking sea otters or long-armed scuba divers.

Located on a rocky bluff overlooking the soft blue of Morro Bay, 74 seawater-filled tanks sit oozing with this odd shellfish. Such an abundance of prized culinary wealth provides a marked contrast to the conditions just a few hundred feet away.

Below this scenic cliff in the breaking surf, the abalone, a former mainstay of the California coast, is fighting a losing battle to stay off the endangered species list. A last stand, of sorts, is being waged against the combined onslaught of natural predators, poachers and pollution.

Thus, the brimming tanks at the Abalone Farm loom as the future for this unique animal, a once plentiful food source whose ocean habitat has become decidedly inhospitable.

In fact, as recently as the 1960s commercial diving operations were landing several million pounds of the animal annually. Now, the catch is little more than a trickle.

The two-decade-long shortage has meant that retail prices hover around $30 a pound for the distinctive, firm meat. In this climate, poachers, both divers and tide-pickers, have become common in an active black market.

"I know a number of restaurants right now where if you knock on the back door with live abalone then they'll buy it right on the spot--no questions asked," Oakes said.

As a result of the wild abalone's precarious state, the activities of Oakes and his seven colleagues here become more than just a commercial venture. The work under way on about three acres of sagebrush-covered coastal hills may someday reverse the fortunes of this native California species.

The initial research that spawned the Abalone Farm began 18 years ago. Since then, ownership has changed hands and laboratory tests have borne a $2-million operation which is the world's only land-based abalone aquaculture venture. The designation is used to differentiate the farm from its five competitors in the United States and Canada, who, during the later stages of their production cycle, return the abalone to the ocean for further growth.

The firm is now on its sixth generation of farm-raised shellfish, and it is these larger animals who twice annually produce the larvae which then enter a three-tiered growth system.

Once spawned and fertilized, these microscopic forms are held in tanks of seawater and fed a special type of single-cell algae for 60 days.

When the slightest indications of the oval, spiral-shaped shell begin to appear, the animals are moved to intermediate holding tanks for an additional six months, and the diet is upgraded to a more complex and substantial algae.

This formative period is the most crucial for the tiny, ocean-based abalone. While just struggling tidbits, the animals are extremely vulnerable to a host of fish and crabs, and as a result a mere one in a million survive at sea. Using methods developed at the site and background research compiled by UC Santa Barbara, the Abalone Farm claims between 90% and 95% of all larvae spawned here reach adult size.

The transfer to the extensive collection of outdoor tanks along the bluff occurs when the abalone reach the size of small coins. There the mollusks remain until ready for market, which is normally in about 18 months.

While explaining the system to visitors, one of the firm's founders, Tom Edell, put things in simple terms.

"This is a feed-lot situation where these animals are treated like cattle. The only difference is that they sit on walls while they get fat and sassy," he said.

Continuing with the analogy, Edell said that the abalone need a certain amount of space in order to successfully graze and that it is vital that just the right number be placed in each tank.

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