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February 2002 Issue
About Abalone
by Philip R. Gantt
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Welcome to Seasoned Cooking and to Phil's International Flair!

This month, I am taking a slightly different slant in this column. I am going to tell you a little bit about the abalone and end with a few suggestions on how to prepare them.

The abalone is a seawater snail, indigenous to the western coast of the North American Continent, ranging from Mexico in the south to Southeast Alaska in the north. Abalone are also found in a few other parts of the world. There are 6 primary varieties, red, pink, green, black, pinto and white. A few hybrids have been found in the wild, however. The pinto abalone are more abundant in the far north (Canada and Alaska). Black abalone are more common in shallow water and tidal areas along the rugged coastline.

The range of their habitat can extend into hundreds of feet deep in the ocean. The red abalone is the largest of the species and has the greatest commercial value. Abalone are found along the coastline where rocks and seaweed are abundant and in deep water where seaweed can grow.

The abalone begins life from eggs that are fertilized in the open ocean water. Once an egg is fertilized, it forms a microscopic creature called a veliger. Under a microscope, the veliger looks like a little helicopter with vibrating scilia that keep it suspended in the water. After about a week, the veliger starts to form a shell, causing it to sink. Veligers that happen to land in the sand are doomed to die of starvation, whereas those that land upon a rocky substrate with plenty of algae growing on it will survive. Red abalone grow at the rate of about 1 inch per year when they are young, and reach a maximum size of less than 12 inches after about 40 to 50 years in the wild. Generally speaking, once an abalone veliger lands on a rock, it will remain within 3 feet of that landing spot for its entire life. Since an abalone has only one foot, it can't run. They simply wander around a small area munching on seaweed. The scilia on the veligers eventually develop into the "feelers" that you see in the photograph.

Predators of the abalone include sea otters, fish, birds and other critters that make their home near the sea. The sea urchin competes with the abalone for food, and have been known to decimate an entire abalone population by "mowing" the seaweed down so that the abalone starve to death. Many areas that were once very productive for abalone are now barren due to a sea urchin infestation. On the positive side, markets have expanded in Japan for the export of sea urchins. With more sea urchins being harvested to meet this demand, kelp beds will eventually be reestablished providing suitable habitat for abalone. There are programs currently underway to transplant kelp to reforest the ocean. It is important that we learn from past mistakes and properly manage the harvest of these resources to maintain a proper balance. In this way we can sustain harvestable levels of abalone, urchins, and other animals to stabilize market prices.

The abalone has a single shell comprised of mother of pearl. The shells are quite beautiful. In centuries past, the abalone was harvested as food by the native peoples that lived along the western coast. The shells were used for making jewelry and tools, and highly valued for trading purposes.

When the Chinese laborers were "imported" into California to assist in building the railroad system, abalone became a staple food in their diet. The Americans -- being primarily meat eaters -- did not think highly of the abalone as a food source. They had no problem with the Chinese eating all the abalone they could harvest along the rugged coastline.

Around the time of the depression, Americans developed a taste for abalone as well. This may have been due to economic circumstances, or it could have been from the influence of the Chinese and Mexicans who highly prized the abalone as a food and source of protein. The commercial harvest of abalone sustained a commercial yield of 20 to 30 million pounds per year in California alone from the mid 30's until the mid 60's. Then, due to a variety of circumstances, the commercial harvest began a serious decline. By the mid 90's, less than 20,000 pounds of abalone were commercially harvested per year in California. By the year 2000, as a measure to preserve what was remaining of the abalone population, the California Department of Fish and Game imposed a ban on all commercial harvest of abalone in California. In addition, regulations were enacted to prohibit sport harvest of abalone south of the Golden Gate Bridge. Too little too late? I question why the abalone was not placed on the endangered species list decades ago.

However, these new regulations designed to preserve what is left of the remaining resource has created a whole new set of problems. A black market has emerged with poachers taking abalone from the north coast of California and selling them to restaurants and fish markets in the San Francisco bay area. A single animal can bring as much as $250 to a poacher. Some poachers have been caught with over 1,500 abalone in possession, all taken in a single day! Restaurants and fish markets have also been fined for purchasing illegal abalone.

Around 1970, the California Department of Fish and Game, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the commercial fishermen, began to address the issue of this declining resource. While the DF&G began trying to raise abalone in captivity, the university developed methods for inducing the spawning of abalone. In a last ditch effort to save the resource, the commercial fishermen built a small abalone hatchery on Stearn's Wharf in Santa Barbara. The intent was to grow some abalone to about 1 inch in size, and then "seed" these animals into ocean beds that were historically productive. While this effort by the commercial fishermen was an honorable one, the commercial abalone fishery was rapidly becoming history.

However, technology did prevail to some degree, and the methods for growing abalone became almost a cookbook-type process. Since the law of supply and demand caused the market price of processed abalone to skyrocket to over $100 per pound, the viability of abalone "farms" became an economically viable alternative to meet market demands. A few entrepeneurs managed to secure funding and a new industry was born. One of these ventures is a company called "The Cultured Abalone," located in Dos Pueblos Canyon, Santa Barbara County, (805) 685-1956.

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