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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.