Monterey Bay Abalone Farm Shows What Sustainable Aquaculture Can Be Like

As world demand for seafood continues to grow, so does demand for green aquaculture practices

At the end of Fisherman’s Wharf #2 in Monterey, California there is a small building which houses the Monterey Abalone Company. In the morning chill, a smell of fresh fish and salt hangs in the mist. This the same wharf John Steinbeck walked while looking for a boat to take him and Ed “Doc” Ricketts to the Sea of Cortez in 1940. The small office inside is lined with counters that are cluttered with papers, shells, and instruments. In the deck there is a hatch that opens into a gaping hole. A wood ladder leads down under the pier. It’s dark and dripping under the wharf. There’s an odor that is both fishy and animal. A pathway of planks leads to the end of the pilings. Pigeons coo overhead, while barks and splashes come from the darkness where the planks disappear. As you walk towards the noises, large shapes emerge and the lugubrious California sea lions, startled, raise their heads in defiance. They grunt, lumber off like overweight men on short crutches, and dive into the water.

hands holding an abaloneMonterey Abalone Company farms abalone in cages suspended in the water under Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, California.

Unbeknownst to the tourists sauntering overhead, there is a sea farm with 150,000 abalone under the boardwalk of the wharf. Down here, sturdy mesh cages hang in the sea from the network of beams. There are 150 to 6,000 abalone per cage, depending on the size of the shells within. A system of pulleys and ropes is in place to lift the cages out of the water. The enclosures protect the abalone from the marauding sea otters who constantly circle in search of snacks. A worker pulls a cage up, opens the lid, and inside are rigid plastic sheets with abalone stuck fast on their surfaces. The capacity of this abalone farm is 300,000 shellfish.

Worldwide aquaculture production has skyrocketed over the past two decades, while capture fisheries have leveled off. In 2011, aquaculture production surpassed marine harvest fisheries, and it shows no sign of slowing down. Currently more that 50 percent of seafood destined for human consumption is cultured. At the same time, there has been growing alarm about the impact of aquaculture, especially about the use of chemicals and antibiotics, introduction of diseases to wild populations, pollution and damage to natural habitats. Since world demand for seafood continues to increase, it is important to encourage “green” and sustainable aquaculture practices and promote the consumption of seafood raised in this manner.

California’s abalone farms, numbering six in all, are a great example of this kind of sustainable aquaculture. Three of these farms, including Monterey Abalone Company, are oceanic. The other three are inland farms, where the abalone are grown in concrete tanks supplied with fresh circulating seawater. The farmed abalone are raised in sea and land-based enclosures with scant use of chemicals and antibiotics. Hence, they have little impact on the natural habitat. Everything is kept as local as possible, from sourcing food to sales. As a result of these green practices, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch lists California abalone as a “Best Choice” seafood.

The story of the California coast abalone is long and complex. It is the narrative of an interconnected ecosystem: of a community of sea otters, kelp beds, abalone, sea urchins, and many other species, clashing with the outside force of man. Man’s harvest of otters and abalone contributed to the collapse of both of these species, and it was human effort again that contributed to their revival.

Abalone, a flattened marine snail, normally creeps over rocks on the shallow sea bottom along the California coast. They need a hard substrate and feed off algae growing on the stones and on kelp that’s washed into the tide pools. Abalone was a traditional food of the Ohlone and Esselen Indians of central California for thousands of years. The tribe used the alabaster shells to make fish hooks and ornaments. Based on evidence found in the Channel Islands, abalone might have been used 12,000 years ago by the first people to populate the Pacific Coast.

Seven species of abalone live in coastal California, the most abundant being the red abalone, Haliotis rufescens. Red abalone populations cycle out of phase with their major predator in central California, the sea otter. That is, when otters are abundant, the abalone are scarce.

Otters once numbered 150,000 to 300,000 in their range from Russia across the Pacific to Alaska and down coastal California. When the German naturalist Georg Stellar, who went on an expedition to map a northern sea route from Russia to North America in the mid-1700s, found and killed large numbers of otters in the Commander Islands in 1741, their pelts became fashionable, and ranked among the world’s most prized furs. Then, as the Russian otters became depleted, the “Great Hunt” spread across the Pacific and down the west coast of North America. The harvest of otters continued for over a century.

In the late 1700s, Americans, English, and Russians began trading for pelts with Native Americans. In 1812 the Russians founded Fort Ross in northern California to facilitate the trading enterprise. Canadians and Americans joined the hunt, trading beads, clothes, and metal implements with the coastal Indians for otter pelts. As the otters became more and more sparse, the value of a pelt increased from $105-165 in 1880 to $1,125 in 1903. By 1900 there were no more otters in Monterey Bay. By 1911,Russia, Japan, Great Britain, and the United States finally signed a treaty putting a moratorium on hunting sea otters, there were only 1,000 to 2,000 otters remaining worldwide.

Postcard of men with a mountain of abalone shellsPhoto by Census of Marine Life E&O/Flickr Circa 1910 postcard of commercially harvested abalone shells. In the late 1800s people along the California coast began to scavenge the shellfish, especially Chinese immigrants who came down from San Francisco in the early 1850s for the “Abalone Rush.”

When the otter population became sparse, the abalone thrived. People along the coast began to scavenge the shellfish, especially Chinese immigrants who came down from San Francisco in the early 1850s for the “Abalone Rush.” The big snails were dried and exported to China. Later Japanese fishermen joined in, using more sophisticated and efficient methods to reach farther into the abalone population with boats and diving suits to harvest them from the bottom.

Then, the oscillating cycles changed once again. From 1914-1970 the sea otter population began to increase at the rate of 4 to 5 percent per year. Most of these otters were offspring of the remnant populations in central California. California Fish and Game scientists also transplanted some sea otters from areas where they had recovered to areas in the south where they’d gone extinct. In the 1950s the otters reappeared in Monterey Bay, and that led to a decline in abalone populations, already under pressure from overharvesting, which peaked in the 1950s and ’60s. Harvests of abalone began to fall steeply in the early 1970s.

But overharvesting and increasing predation weren’t the only problems for abalone. In the 1980s and ’90s the red abalone was devastated by “withering foot syndrome,” a protozoan disease that affects the abalone’s digestive system and causes them to starve. Warm temperatures, propelled by by a series of warm El Niño events in the 1980s, compounded the problem, allowing the disease-causing protozoa to proliferate and disrupting the abalone’s food supply of kelp. Black and white abalones, which have a more southerly range, were hit the hardest and were eventually listed as endangered species.

By 1997, with populations severely depleted, the wild abalone fisheries closed. Even now, with commercial fishing banned for nearly 20 years, wild abalone harvesting in California is limited to recreational free divers and shore pickers in the northern portion of the state.

When the natural population of abalone began to decrease in the 1970s, prices, of course, began to increase. By the time the fisheries closed the price of abalone had escalated from about $5 per kg to $25 per kg and the delicacy was in great demand. Entrepreneurs began to dream of growing them. The first efforts to culture abalone in a laboratory were in the 1960s. Gradually techniques were developed to induce spawning and to grow the larvae and juveniles to commercial size. By the 1980s, abalone aquaculture had moved from research and development to commercial production.

The Monterey Abalone Company was formed in 1992. The company is currently owned and operated by Art Seavey and Trevor Fay. Seavey got his Masters degree in Ecology from the University of California during the “blue revolution” in the 1980s when aquaculture was supposed to feed the world of the future.

Co-owner Trevor Fay spends a lot of time on and in the water. Not only does he work the abalone farm, but he also motors out into the bay to collect kelp to feed his brood, nearly 3 tons each week. He also dives to collect marine specimens for a mail order biomedical supply business and to collect different algae used to make seaweed salads for diners in high-end restaurants. Fay says he believes he is “doing the right thing, the right way, at the right time.”

Although China, the world’s largest abalone producer, and Japan buy a lot of abalone from other California growers, all of Monterey Abalone’s shellfish are sold domestically, 75 to 80 percent of it within the Monterey Peninsula itself. Much of the rest is sold in the San Francisco Bay Area, with smaller markets in New York and Los Angeles.

This is a clean and sustainable operation, says Fay. The abalones are grown without chemicals or antibiotics; they are fed local kelp and algae so no foreign nutrients are added to the bay’s system. There is no wasted food, and the sea bottom is swept clean of abalone waste products by strong tides in the bay.

“They are feeding the abalone what they usually eat where they usually eat it. They’ve pretty much taken all of the negatives out of aquaculture,” says Dr. Michael Graham of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory.

Monterey Abalone Co's office buildingPhoto by Kevin M. BaileyThings weren’t always smooth between the environmental community and Monterey Bay Abalone. In the 1990’s Seavey fought what he calls “The Kelp Wars” against a multi-pronged force of restaurant owners, water-view property owners, environmentalists, and divers protesting his harvest of kelp.

The company’s main challenge is finding enough food of the right quality to optimize their abalones’ growth. The shellfish start out as hatchery seed, about 1 inch in diameter and grow at a rate of about an inch per year. Fisheries usually grow the abalone out for 1 to 5 years, and the product ranges from small hors d’oeuvres to steak size.

Farmed abalones hardly move an inch during their entire life cycle. In the sea, they are perfectly capable of grazing across the ocean bottom in search of food and scooting along pretty quickly when threatened by predators. But on aquaculture farms, they have to be fed. Once a week, their cages are stuffed with kelp. They just reach one of their two muscular and dexterous feet, called pseudopods, grab a chunk of seaweed and pull it underneath to their mouth where they have a grinding tongue called a radula.

Fay says that the abalone grow 25 percent faster if they are fed a diet containing 5 percent red algae. They also taste better and have a more natural color. So Monterey Abalone maintains a crop of red algae growing on the wharf’s concrete pillars, and they also harvest some additional algae by diving for it.

Finding enough kelp in the winter, the non-growing season, has been a hurdle for Monterey Abalone. The company has experimented with preserving kelp during the growing season by drying it or salting it. Sometimes, winter storms can destroy kelp beds, creating a feast for abalone when the loosened fronds wash inshore, but this feast is followed by famine.

Another problem for sea farming of abalone are the El Niños that periodically sweep up the California coast. During a strong El Niño event, unusually warm water flows up the coast, and the regular process of upwelling stops. It is the upwelling of nutrients from deep water that drives the high productivity of the California coastline and its kelp beds. Some companies have resorted to using artificial feeds. But Fay says that the taste of the abalone on an unnatural diet isn’t right, besides, it isn’t practical in the open mesh cages as the feed would fall through the mesh to the ocean bottom. Artificial feeds are more practical in land-based abalone farms and hatcheries.

In other areas of the world, abalone ranches have grown out of scale. Not only has cultured abalone production filled-in for lost wild production, it far exceeds it. Beds on the sea floor are prepared for abalone to be seeded. Predators and competitors are removed, and the ecosystem is altered. The sea bottom is converted into an abalone pasture.

Seafood Watch, for instance, has rated abalone from Chinese sea ranches as ones to be avoided “due to the potential significant changes to ocean habitat and the disruption and disturbance to all other forms of marine life that live within the ranch.” Monterey Bay Abalone’s operations offer a viable and sustainable alternative to destructive aquaculture practices like these.

But things weren’t always smooth between the environmental community and Monterey Bay Abalone. In the 1990’s Seavey fought what he calls “The Kelp Wars” against a multi-pronged force of restaurant owners, water-view property owners, environmentalists, and divers protesting his harvest of kelp.

The kelp beds of Monterey Bay have been compared to giant underwater forests. Their stalks are anchored to stones on the sea bottom and they rise up nearly 50 meters to a canopy of fronds at the surface. Underneath the canopy there is an understory of other lesser species. A dense “turf” of matted algae hovers below like a groundcover. A unique and rich fauna lives in and around the kelp forest.

In the 1990s tourism brought in more than $600 million dollars annually to the Monterey Bay area. With their mammals and birds, the kelp beds just off Cannery Row and Pacific Grove were popular destinations for tourists and divers. Things came to a head when a commercial kelp harvester from Davenport invaded the bay from their usual cutting area to the north. Using a mechanical kelp cutter like a giant underwater lawn mower, they clear-cut a kelp bed just offshore of Cannery Row. Diners in the waterfront restaurants were outraged. The issue of kelp harvests, even small scale ones, became emotional and acrimonious.

One time a diver aimed his speeding Zodiac at a Monterey Abalone Company crew that was harvesting kelp by hand from a small boat. The speeding inflatable boat swerved out of the way at the last minute and sprayed the harvesters with water. Those were frustrating and tense times for their company, say Seavey and Fay.

The conflict was finally resolved after a Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and California Department of Fish and Game study found that the kelp beds in the bay produced more than 220,000 tons of drift kelp each year, while Monterey Bay Abalone only harvested about 250 tons of this, or just over one-tenth of one percent, and they cut the kelp by hand, carefully rotating the harvest. With this estimate of minimal impact, the argument ended, Fay says.

In the growing season, the kelp grows over a foot each day. “It’s just like cutting the grass in your front yard. That top is going to come right back,” Fay says. The study determined that there wasn’t an ecological problem with the harvest, but rather a conflict among resource users. To mitigate the hard feelings, a panel of scientists was nominated to evaluate the harvest and make recommendations to minimize the impact on the bay’s ecosystem. They suggested that the fish and game department, which manages the harvest within the sanctuary, put some restrictions on how, when, and where harvests occurred. They recommended closing some areas to mechanical harvesting, and some areas to seaweed harvesting altogether, as well as creating a limited-entry in some areas, and imposing limits on harvesting from any one kelp bed.

Since then, the controversy about kelp harvesting by Monterey Bay Abalone has died down. Seavey and Fay say that they don’t hear many complaints anymore, but the episode helped them learn that educating the public about the small-scale of their operation, its local nature, and their attempts to minimize the farm’s impact on the environment is important.

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