Building a Better Abalone 

Entrepreneurs and scientists team up to cultivate kelp as a food source for farmed abalone.

They live in a dank world under Monterey's commercial wharf, oblivious to the cages that trap them in the translucent green water. All they know is seaweed. "They pull the kelp under their foot and then they sit there and munch on them," Thew Suskiewicz explains in the wharf's shady underbelly, which echoes with the relentless barking of sea lions. He flips over a four-inch abalone to reveal its dinner in progress.

For the abalone, this is life. For the Monterey Abalone Company, this is business. And for Suskiewicz, this is science: His two-and-a-half-year experiment as a grad student at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories produced a farmed abalone with a pretty red color and rich flavor, thanks to the farmed seaweed that supplements its basic kelp diet.

Until recently, the seventeen-year-old company fed its hatchery-bred, slow-growing sea snails the traditional way: with wild giant and bull kelp that grows thick along the Central Coast. But the diet imparts the California red abalone — which are indigenous to Monterey Bay and the Northern California coast — with a green-gray color, unlike the rosier shade that inspired its name.

Red seaweed is like a vitamin supplement, Suskiewicz explains: Just a little makes abalone grow faster, healthier, and redder. The hitch is that it grows on the bottom of the ocean. Dragging for it isn't environmentally sound, and diving for it requires complicated permits.

In search of a solution, co-owner Art Seavey approached lab scientist Mike Graham, who secured a federal grant and roped Suskiewicz into the project. Together, the collaborators installed a pilot seaweed farm in the Monterey harbor. From the surface, it looks like an unassuming gaggle of bright orange buoys. But PVC frames dangling underwater nurture quickly growing masses of red seaweed and kelp.

The algae need nothing more than the water's natural nutrients and light to grow; the only costs to the company are labor and equipment. The aquatic farm solves two dilemmas, Suskiewicz explains: In addition to providing nutritional supplements for the abalone, it also acts as insurance for the winter, when storms can denude the ocean of wild kelp.

The company is permitted to raise up to 500,000 abalone, co-owner Trevor Fay says, but the fickle availability of winter kelp limits it to 250,000. "If we could have a stockpile of feed to supplement their diet during the lean times, we could achieve a full build-out," he says. "The market's definitely there. We're selling them as fast as we can grow them."

No other California abalone company farms its own algae, Suskiewicz said, but the Super Abs pilot is what he calls a resounding proof of concept. Kelp grows up to a foot a day, but abalone bulk up at literally at a snail's pace — adding about one-inch diameter to their shells each year.

The addition of red seaweed, however, makes some grow up to 25 percent faster, which could drive down their high price. Abalone currently sells wholesale for about $25 per pound, Fay says, and an entrée can fetch as much as $80.

The company is already fielding orders for its remaining 15,000 Super Abs, Suskiewicz says, with plans to produce more. In early February, he hopes to submit a Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary permit application to relocate the seaweed farm to the other side of the pier and expand it from basketball-court to football-field size. Eventually, he says, the enhanced abalone may account for half the company's stock.

"Not only do they grow faster and look better, but they taste better," says MLML professor Graham, the project's scientific lead. "[Using farmed red seaweed] makes abalone more economical, more environmentally friendly, and more marketable."

While most wild abalone are strictly protected — black abalone was recently added to the endangered species list — farmed abalone ranks high on Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch "best choices" list. The Super Abs are even more eco-friendly, Suskiewicz says, because the seaweed farm acts as a biological filter, removing nitrates, phosphates, and ammonia from the water.

"They're gonna clean up the area where you grow them," he says. "This is going to make something that's already environmentally sustainable more healthy and more economically sustainable."

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