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Building Up California Abs

June 23, 1994|KITTY MORSE

There once was a time when abalone, this most succulent of shellfish, was plentiful along the Pacific Coast of North America. Within barely a generation, however, the delicate mollusk and its distinctive ear-shaped shell has become a rarity in the wild, a victim of gastronomic overkill. Experts have several explanations for this unfortunate depletion. The main reasons include overfishing and illegal gathering of undersized abalones.

Abalones also suffer from the gluttonous appetite of such natural predators as California sea otters, whose taste for it rivals that of discriminating epicures. These various factors account for the 90% drop in commercially available wild abalone over the past 30 years, principally along the Southern California coast.

Luckily, there is new hope for American abalone fanciers. Thanks to a handful of forward-thinking aquaculturists who have established commercial abalone "farms," Pacific red abalone is making a domesticated comeback. The endeavor requires intensive scientific research as well as staggering amounts of patience, for abalone in the shell grows only one inch a year and requires up to three years before it reaches marketable size.

Biologist John McMullen, a 20-year veteran of abalone production and founder of AbLab in Port Hueneme, Calif., was one of the first to farm abalone. He specializes in live, three-inch California-farmed abalone in the shell.

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"We want people to know they're really eating abalone," he explains. "There's a lot of consumer education involved. Abalone is still relatively unknown outside California."

At AbLab, the abalone is nurtured from the egg stage, when it is tinier than a grain of sand, to marketable size. For three years, the pampered mollusks feed on sea water and fresh kelp in large round tubs located within a few feet of the beach and cooled by fresh ocean breezes. The end product is so tender that "we don't even need to pound it into a steak," says McMullen.

Farther up the California coast, Pacific Mariculture occupies the edge of a low, scraggly cliff a few miles north of Santa Cruz. Fittingly, the farm lies in the shadow of the oldest Indian midden (prehistoric refuse mound) in California, a pile consisting largely of discarded abalone shells; it once belonged to the Alones--whence the name abalone. The shimmering blue crescent of Monterey Bay serves as a backdrop. In the distance, glistening acres of kelp nurture some of the best fishing grounds in the state, a fact not lost on the army of sea gulls and brown pelicans floating lazily over the waves.

Home to one of the world's richest ecosystems, this area was recently declared a marine sanctuary. The fresh sea water of Monterey Bay is continuously pumped into the 400,000-gallon tank towering over the Pacific Mariculture acres--water that, in turn, is funneled into dozens of fiberglass tubs brimming with abalone in various stages of growth. In some tubs, seedlings are so small as to be almost invisible to the naked eye. In others, clouds of bubbles breaking through the blanket of fresh kelp are telltale indicators of the "baby" abalones' healthful appetite.

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Pacific Mariculture maintains close ties with the University of California-Santa Cruz (and also with Stanford University), which advises the company in matters of animal selection and improved breeding techniques.

"We saw what the future would be," says Pacific Mariculture's president, Dr. Peter Scrivani, a founder and researcher for the project. "It's simply old-fashioned farming with a college education." Their most popular product is the Petite 1 3/4-inch abalone, popular with Bay Area chefs.

Like their colleagues at Pacific Mariculture, Chris and Linda Van Hook of ABALONE International in Crescent City, Calif., have spent years perfecting their product.

"We should have been bank tellers; we would have made more money," says Chris Van Hook, whose hearty laugh belies the fact that he spent eight full years exploring the Pacific Coast from Baja California to Vancouver, securing the perfect site and the permits that would allow him to grow ocean-raised abalone. Crescent City's wide oceanic harbor, close to the Oregon border, fit the bill perfectly for Van Hook to fulfill his ambition.

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The year 1988 marked the beginning of ABALONE International and a 40-year lease in the waters of Crescent City Harbor. Armed with a B.A. degree in environmental studies from the University of California-Santa Barbara, the aquaculturist started toying with the idea of producing abalone commercially as far back as 1976.

"Nearly all land-based farms were started in the '70s when energy wasn't a major consideration," he says. "We set about it totally the opposite way. We asked ourselves, where should we go? Rather than remaining landlocked, I preferred to go out in the ocean with my cages."

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