Thursday, August 11, 2011

red abalone ~ 08/11/11 ~ Wharf No. 2

Haliotis rufescens

About 4 years ago my husband and I were watching the boob tube and caught sight of Mike Rowe in a skiff on what looked like the Monterey Bay. Come to find out Discovery's Dirty Jobs was doing an episode on abalone farming and kelp harvesting at a local business. We were surprised to learn the Monterey Municipal Wharf No. 2, aka the commercial wharf, housed an abalone farm. What? Really? Where? I mean, we've walked out there numerous times and never would have suspected there's an abalone farm. We even went out on the nearby touristy Fisherman's Wharf for the sole purpose to see if we could get a better look across the harbor at anything underneath the main deck of the commercial wharf. Nothing doing.

There's very little evidence of the Monterey Abalone Company, except for a small sign, one door, and one window tucked in between larger fish companies. Usually it's closed when we walk by, but I happened to be walking over there yesterday morning and they were open. I stopped and briefly chatted with the nice fellow in the office.

I left with my mind on other sights I had just seen on the commercial wharf, particularly a squid boat unloading its catch onto conveyor belts and hordes of pelicans helping themselves to the moving buffet. After the squid fellas were done packing ice, they fed the pelicans dropped squid as if they were people merely feeding pigeons bread crumbs in a park. I wish I had pictures.

Now, I usually don't carry the camera with me on my morning walks. I've frequently regretted this as I've seen so many amazing sights I would have liked to have included on Nature ID, like mola molas, dolphins, whales, night herons... but I do try to remind myself I have a life outside of this blog.

Ha! With that said and with hopes to capture the amazing squid boat unloading/pelican ritual, I made sure to bring the camera with me this morning. Doh! I didn't see the lighted squid boats last night on the bay and should have figured there wouldn't be a catch this morning. So, armed with the camera, I stopped by the abalone company to take a picture of an old specimen they had in a tank next to the door. Turns out the nice fellow Trevor Fay is a partner of the Monterey Abalone Company, and he asked me if I'd like to see the farm. Oh, yes, please, and thank you very much!

They don't breed the abalone here. They get 1 year old abalone the size shown above from a land-based hatchery in Cayucos (The Abalone Farm), south of Big Sur and just north of Morro Bay. I found this blog post on The Other 95% and I think the video might be from that hatchery. There are only a handful of abalone farms in California. Commercial fishing was banned in 1997, although sport fishing continues in some areas with restrictions.

Down a small hole in the floor I went, clinging dearly to the ladder. It was dark under there like a cave. There's a narrow wooden walkway with low overhanging cement beams. Off to the sides there are ropes hanging down into the water. Each rope is attached to a wire cage. They currently have 200 cages with 200,000 abalone. They now have the capacity to raise 500,000 abalone, but first they had to solve the problem of feeding so many animals during the winter.

So, what do abalone eat? Kelp! And lots of it. As I mentioned before in a previous blog post, there's a seasonal nature to kelp. In the summer it's quite prolific and as the season progresses it can easily be seen floating on the surface off the shore in Monterey and Pacific Grove. Once autumn hits much of the kelp starts washing ashore. Through a grant, the Monterey Abalone Company has experimented with various ways to preserve kelp during the lean winter months. I believe they salt the kelp and store them in giant plastic bags which they stack in bins on the wharf. Unfortunately, curious passersby try to open the bags to see what's inside, which ends up ruining the preserved kelp. I like the fact they use nature-made food, rather than artificial feed formulations. I imagine the company has to comply with all sorts of regulations for harvesting kelp considering Monterey Bay is a National Marine Sanctuary.

They use a 22 foot skiff to hand-harvest the kelp with a kitchen knife. I'm not kidding - no fancy tools. They go out several times a week and fill the skiff to capacity, which takes about 45 minutes each trip and yields about 5 tons every week. Man, here I thought feeding a handful of caterpillars fresh plant cuttings was a chore; this is that multiplied by 32,000. Add in the ocean motion (I get sea sick) and the sheer weight and that's a lot of hard work (and apparently dirty work). Funny enough, after the Dirty Jobs episode aired, most of the calls the company received were from people wanting to know how to get a boat like the one they have.

While I was there, they had just pulled up a cage to check, clean, and feed the abalone. The ones above are about 3 years old. Interestingly enough the abalone grow at different rates, so they move them around and save the fastest growing abalone for the larger sizes they sell.

Here's one of the workers, with kitchen knife in hand, putting fresh kelp into one of the cages. They have to stuff in enough kelp to feed the abalone for a week, and yet not stuff it so full the gastropods suffocate. It's a full-time operation rotating through the 200 cages. At the end of the walkway there was a sea lion, but apparently they're not too interested in the abalone. The sea otters on the other hand are "like kids in a candy store." Thanks to the cages, they don't eat up the farm. I immediately thought of those wire cages people put around the roots of their garden plants to keep gophers from eating their fill.

I asked loads of questions, but I don't remember most of what Trevor shared with me since I didn't take notes. Shown above is a fairly young red abalone at around 3 years old, too young to be able to determine its sex. From an e-mail Trevor says, "The color of their gonad changes when the animal is ripe, fertile and ready to spawn, green for girls and white or cream color for boys." Here's a good link to abalone anatomy and life cycle. The one thing the farm has to watch out for is some kind of disease.

Here's a picture of an order of abalone getting ready to be delivered across the harbor to one of the restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf. They get rinsed in sea water and stacked one on top of the other. They have a handy-dandy flat device that looks like a spackling tool to pick up the abalone off the table. Most of their customers are local. I asked if they shipped to Asian countries. Trevor said they wouldn't be able to keep up with the demand. Plus, the cost of shipping overseas is fairly prohibitive. However, Trevor also provides specimens to an aquarium in Taiwan, which has no problem paying for shipping. They actually have an exhibit of the Monterey Bay. Funny how something so familiar and practically outside my back door has international appeal. There are 8 species of abalone along the coast of California. I think most, if not all, are protected, but I'll have to look that up later as this is getting to be my longest post to date. Are you even reading this still?

All in all, I was very excited to get a personal tour of our local abalone farm, simply because I wanted to virtually collect a new species for this blog. Very cool. I may have to break down and patronize one of the spendy touristy restaurants on the wharf to taste some properly prepared abalone ($60 a plate, more than lobster!) since my favorite local seafood market/restaurant only orders per special request. I like mussels, oysters, and squid, so maybe I'll also like abalone. Trevor says it has a very unique taste. We'll see.

To see the Dirty Job's episode of abalone farming, check out the links on Monterey Abalone Company's media page. It aired October 20, 2007 and is not included in Discovery Channel's online episodes.

ps 08/15/11 - I made a few minor corrections above after an e-mail from Trevor and added/changed embedded links.


Neil said...

It's all about the preparation. Improperly pounded or over cooked it tastes like eating a rubber balloon. Well-prepared it is one of the best things ever - way better than any other mollusc I've eaten (with the possible exception of BBQ oysters).

Sinbad and I on the Loose said...

That was a very interesting post. You might want to consider making a pest of yourself more often and get some more personalized tours. Don't forget your camera.

Jennifer said...

I'm totally fascinated. Awesome post!

John W. Wall said...

Great story! I hadn't really thought about whether there were commercial abalone farms. I've seen the pull-outs on Hwy. 1 in Sonoma County jammed with cars when the recreational season opens. Like you, I have yet to eat any abalone. Gotta recitify that someday!

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Neil, that's why for my first taste I want to make sure I get some properly prepared. I was turned off to mussels and oysters for the longest time, until I tried some that were fresh and well-presented. I'm looking forward to eating some abalone, even though it's super spendy.

JL, oh, you can't begin to imagine what a pest I can be. Just last week I pulled over to ask a fellow on the side of the road what he was counting in the bushes. Turns out he's a spider expert from U of Cincinnati. I'll have a backdated post on that forthcoming.

Thanks, Jennifer! Want to try some abalone with me?

John, me, too! I've wondered how restaurants can offer abalone on their menus when commercial fishing is banned. Now I know. It seems to be a growing business, so maybe the prices will come down.

Imperfect and tense said...

Excellent post, Katie. It reminded me of a documentary we watched ages ago, about a Sea Otter and her cub. They were living in a marina and when a large male attacked the female, the cub survived thanks to an abalone farm under a wharf. Can't wait for the next roving report!

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Thanks, Graeme. I wonder if that documentary was from here. I don't think there are many abalone farms located under a wharf; most farms are land-based with pumped sea water. Plus, the Monterey Bay Aqauarium has an active sea otter rescue program.

Roving report, huh? I tend to ask a lot of questions from random strangers, like the time I got a day-long personal tour of Chennai, India from an auto-rickshaw driver.

Here's my latest post from simply asking someone on the side of the road what he was doing:

biobabbler said...

How cool. =) Yes, still reading, miracle of all miracles (Queen ADD, here), 'cause it's super interesting! Thanks so much. Love the little guy crawling on the man's thumb. Interesting re: gonad colors, too.

Super cool. Many thanks. =) & I haven't heard Cayucos in AGES (have family by SLO). =)

Katie (Nature ID) said...

bb, glad you made it through the read. This is an unusual post for Nature ID, but it still fits into my theme.