July 21, 2004
CAYUCOS, Calif. - It is an odd spot for a miracle, this motley collection of beachfront shacks and seascoured concrete tanks clinging to a sunburned bluff above the Pacific just north of Morro Bay.
But it’s hard to describe what is happening at the Abalone Farm any other way. Here, the abalone — so rare in the wild that it is illegal to catch it commercially — is making a comeback.
Consider this: Abalone is so tightly protected that it can legally be caught only by sport fishermen north of San Francisco Bay and only if the fishermen are free - diving, without breathing equipment. Anything else is illegal. And yet, abalone appears on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s list of ‘‘best choice’’ seafood. But only in its farmed form, of course, and that quite likely means that it comes from the Abalone Farm, which accounts for more than half of the fresh abalone eaten in this country.
It is a marine gastropod (family haliotidae, genus Haliotis), a snail that lives in the sea. In fact, if you try to imagine a very big, very stylish snail sporting a streamlined shell that looks something like a ’50s or ’60s bathtub Porsche, you’ll be very close.
The part of the abalone that we eat is its large muscular foot. Raw, it is very tough. When eaten as sushi, this translates as a pleasing crunchiness. If it is to be cooked, abalone is almost always tenderized by pounding, just as you would flatten a scaloppine of veal or a chicken-fried steak. It must also be heated very quickly or it becomes rubbery.
Properly prepared, abalone has a texture that is nearly buttery. The flavor is beguiling, like a combination of a very sweet, very tender calamari steak with the lingering, subtle shellfish flavor we associate with oyster or crab.
It is no wonder people went so crazy for it. Still, it is a shame. In a relatively short span, abalone went from being almost as common as mussels to so overfished that only lastminute legislation and the intervention of advanced aquaculture could save it from oblivion.
But if you equate modern miracles with high technology, you’ll be disappointed in the Abalone Farm.
The shellfish are kept in a series of plastic buckets and tanks that are housed in what seem like a series of rickety boathouses and barracks. When the abalones are big enough, they graduate to the concrete tanks, roughly 4 feet square and divided by plywood walls.
‘‘We’re very low-tech,’’ says Brad Buckley, the farm’s sales manager. ‘‘We’ve learned we have to work with the abalone on its own natural level.’’
The abalones don’t seem to mind. At any given time, the farm houses between 4 million and 6 million of them. They sell a million a year; most go to sushi bars in Southern California and the Bay Area, but about a third are shipped to Asia.
As rustic as the setting might be, the Abalone Farm is thoroughly modern when it comes to getting its product out. A couple of times a week, a truck comes in and picks up big loads to be delivered to wholesalers. Because of its scarcity, fresh abalone is extravagantly expensive. Ready-to-cook steaks from the Abalone Farm run about $100 per pound (enough for six to eight moderate servings). Oldtimers who remember wild abalone as big as dinner plates are not likely to be impressed by the size of these farmed specimens.
Most are harvested when they’re about as big as your palm. A few superachievers are as big as your entire hand. The abalones range in weight from 3 1 /2 ounces to 8 ounces, which will yield 1- to 2-ounce steaks.
It takes an abalone four years to get to this size, and that is considered the prime of its growth spurt. It may take five or six years more for an abalone to add an extra inch or two. Those hubcap-size monsters you see in old pictures had to have been 40 or 50 years old.
Abalone has been eaten in California for centuries, if not millenniums. Abalone shells are common in coastal middens, ancient garbage dumps left by American Indians.
The first commercial abalone fishermen were the Chinese, who, beginning in the 1850s, dried them and shipped them back home. In the early part of the 20th century, the Japanese took over and used their advanced knowledge of early deep-sea diving techniques to harvest them more efficiently.
But it wasn’t until after World War II and Jacques Cousteau’s popularization of scuba equipment, which permitted even deeper, less restricted dives and extended stays under water, that fishermen were able to go after abalone in a really big way.
Prices rose with the increasing scarcity. What a diver could get for 100 dozen abalone in the early 1960s he might get for 10 dozen in the 1970s and for a dozen in the 1980s.
With that kind of money at stake — it’s estimated that at its peak abalone brought in $20 million per year — the fishery was very hard to regulate. (It still is, though for different reasons: Last month Fish and Game nabbed a couple of poachers near Mendocino with more than 400 abalones in their truck.)
The abalone family is made up of several varieties, some more desirable than others, some easier to catch than others. As the most desirable, easiest to harvest abalones disappeared, they’d be replaced in the statistics by those that were less desirable and harder to catch. You start out collecting abalones at low tide in Venice and wind up deep-diving for them off the Channel Islands. Finally, there was almost nothing left. Gradually, between 1993 and 1997, the commercial abalone fishery in California was shut down.
Abalones are extremely inefficient, particularly when it comes to reproducing. They are what are called broadcast spawners, which means they release eggs and sperm into the water when the ocean conditions are just right, regardless of whether another abalone is close by. To produce fertilized eggs, they must truly get lucky. Because abalones prefer to live in colonies, this usually isn’t a big problem. But in a depleted population with males and females scattered farther apart, there are markedly fewer chances of one abalone’s being close enough to another to mate successfully. Furthermore, though abalones are fecund (a mature female may produce more than 10 million eggs at a time), they are remarkably unsuccessful as parents. Only a fraction of a percentage of fertilized eggs actually makes it to maturity in the wild.