Archive for October, 2013

Delectable Abalone

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

When you eat an abalone, which is a kind of marine gastropod or snail, you eat the chewy and tasty muscle that is – or was – its foot.

Have you eaten farmed abalone lately? Might be worthwhile.

Three living but upside-down Haliotis discus - each displaying its yummy looking edible foot.(panoramio.com)

Three living but upside-down Haliotis discus – each displaying its yummy looking edible foot.(panoramio.com)

The immense stretch of floating abalone farms in Luoyuan Bay, Fujian Province on the southeast coast of China is one of 20 stories featured in Watermark, the new movie by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky, whose previous film was the remarkable Manufactured Landscapes.

Burtynsky's photograph of some of the floating abalone farms in Luoyuan Bay (designboom,com)

Burtynsky’s photograph of some of the floating abalone farms in Luoyuan Bay (designboom.com)

Although Waterpark lacks much narrative or a clear focus, the videography is again extraordinary, and the story on the abalone farms stands out – it includes a little more detail and complexity, even a little explanation with the briefest of reflection. Millions of acres of Luoyaun Bay are covered with tethered, floating pens where abalones are grown, fed on kelp until they reach harvestable size. There is no larger abalone farming site in the world.

Working the abalone breeding pens in Luoyuan Bay (infoyu.net)

Working the abalone breeding pens in Luoyuan Bay (infoyu.net)

Abalones are grown increasingly easily, in onshore water runways, in floating pens in the sea, and in sea ranches where bottom predators and competitors have been removed. Abalone are herbivores, eating microalgae when they are small, kelp when they get larger – and neither kind of food supply is in short supply. Done right, the farming has little effect on the kelp canopy which is cut for feeding the mollusks, for it regrows rapidly.

Only a few species are now cultured, and most of the aquaculture occurs in China, with much less in Chile, USA, and Australia. Any sea ranching gets bad press from Monterrey Seafood Watch because of the ecosystem modification that is involved, but farmed abalone get ‘Best Choice’ designation from MSW.

One way to eat abalone: sashimi, cut thin and eaten raw (wikimedia.org).

One way to eat abalone: sashimi, cut thin and eaten raw (wikimedia.org).

This all is very recent. Few abalones were farmed in 1970, though there was a limited commercial fishery which soon depleted the available stocks. Commercial fishing is now illegal most places, though not yet in Mexico. By 1990, a few farms around the world produced about 300 metric tons of abalone, by 2000 about 1000 mt. Now the annual total is more than 100,000 mt, and most of it is in China.

Annual aquaculture of abalone has grown rapidly from nothing in 1970 to 100,000 metric tons now (fishtech.com)

Annual aquaculture of abalone has grown rapidly from nothing in 1970 to 100,000 metric tons now (fishtech.com)

There are few drawbacks to sea-pen aquaculture, but they do exist – mainly risks from disease and from storms. The Chinese now culture an abalone that is a hybrid of the naturally occurring Chinese stock and the more disease-resistant Japanese stock – both from the same species, Haliotis discus. As for storms, tying the floating pens together in immense masses reduces the potential wave impact- though how much so is still untested by an intense typhoon.

The vast majority of abalone aquaculture occurs on the south east coast of China, and little of it, if any, is exported. These are data from 2010.  (fishtech.com)

The vast majority of abalone aquaculture occurs on the south east coast of China, and little of it, if any, is exported. These are data from 2010. (fishtech.com)

An aquaculturist working on the Luoyuan Bay pens, interviewed briefly in Watermark and thinking about the possibility of typhoon impact, observed that nothing lasts forever. Clearly a healthy attitude to have these days, but even if a damaging storm hits, the pens can be quickly rebuilt and the culture reestablished, and it can all continue.

Unlike fish farming – think salmon, halibut, cod, shrimp – abalone farming is resilient, sustainable, low-impact, non-polluting, non-destructive, algae-based farming. What more can we ask for?

And cut thin, pounded well to tenderize it, then pan fried or sauteed briefly, abalone is no second-best substitute: this is fine food.

Salmon Trumps Gold

Friday, October 25th, 2013
The world's largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay (nbcnews.com)

The world’s largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay (nbcnews.com)

Each year 30-40 million sockeye salmon, along with smaller numbers of chum, silver and king salmon, return to breed in the rivers and streams that empty into Bristol Bay, Alaska after several years growing in the North Pacific.

Bristol Bay, Alaska - 400 km long, 250 km wide at its mouth (pewenvironment.org)

Bristol Bay, Alaska – 400 km long, 250 km wide at its mouth (pewenvironment.org)

Bristol Bay, the easternmost extension of the Bering Sea on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula, is relatively shallow, with shoals, sandbars and strong winds, as well as tides that are funneled up to a remarkable 10 m by the time they reach the eastern end of the bay. Shipping is a challenge.

It is a region of salmon fishing, both commercial and sport, of canneries, and of hunting and tourism. It is also a region with very large reserves of gold and other tempting minerals.

Bristol Bay has a large watershed, including the large Lake Iliamna  where Pebble Mine would be located (fishermenforbristolbay.org)

Bristol Bay has a large watershed, including the large Lake Iliamna where Pebble Mine would be located (fishermenforbristolbay.org)

The possibility of mining the minerals at what is known as Pebble Mine has been the focus of an intense fight for a couple of decades. There are reasons to be concerned.

If mining occurred, it would last several decades and would accumulate 10 billion tons of mining waste that would somehow have to be stored ‘permanently’ in an area that is considered to be an earthquake zone. And of course such mining also uses and contaminates vast amount of fresh water.

It is hard to find anyone in the region who supports Pebble Mine. Almost a million people have signed a petition that opposes it.

Last May the EPA issued a draft assessment indicating the risk of contamination from the proposed mine would be great, and that the Clean Water Act could be invoked to protect the region. Still, two companies have wanted to start the permit process – Anglo American and Canadian Northern Dynasty Minerals.

Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator, appears to be sympathetic to protecting Bristol Bay, but says the EPA will follow the science (washingtonpost.com)

Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator, appears to be sympathetic to protecting Bristol Bay, but says the EPA will follow the science (washingtonpost.com)

In mid September, Anglo American unexpectedly announced that the whole endeavor was too much of a risk, and pulled out. An encouraging development, but Canadian Northern Dynasty Minerals say they’ll continue on alone to seek permits.

Perhaps they won’t. A final draft of the EPA assessment is not due until the end of this year, but Congressional hearings are currently underway.

Even if the EPA succeeds in stopping the mining, other threats to Bristol Bay remain. Much of the Bay has been a target for oil and gas drilling, also for decades. Despite great opposition from local villages, Native Tribes, fishing organizations, conservation groups, and even the State of Alaska, the US Dept of Interior opened the Bay to oil and gas exploration when Reagan was president.

Areas of possible oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay (businessinsider.com)

Areas of possible oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay (businessinsider.com)

Congress added the Bay to the moratorium on oil exploration following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, and in 1998 Clinton extended the protection from exploration to 2012. Not surprisingly, George W. Bush removed Bristol Bay from the moratorium in 2003 and then in 2007 lifted the further protection that Clinton had given it. In 2010, Obama once again removed the area from any leasing programs, protecting it through 2017. The US Republican Congress tried seven times to withdraw that protection during its 2012 session, and though it failed each time, it is clear that any decisions can easily be reversed.

Part of the salmon fishing fleet in Bristol Bay (fisherynation.com)

Part of the salmon fishing fleet in Bristol Bay (fisherynation.com)

Bristol Bay is wild, remote, diverse and productive, one of the richest marine ecosystems left on Earth. It can be protected, and its fisheries can be sustained. Or it can be wrecked by the usual suspects.

These are hardly rational times, and ‘saving’ a place is a process that may never end.

Constant vigilance is our only option.

Permanent protection will take unending effort (akmarine.org)

Permanent protection will take unending effort (akmarine.org)