Farmed abalone is available year-round although the supply is limited and the prices may be high. Red abalone is produced live, fresh, frozen, as well as processed and tenderized, dried, salted, and canned. Farmed U.S. red abalone should be between two to three inches in size, any larger than four inches and it’s either imported or illegally poached. Tenderized and cooked abalone is mild and slightly sweet in taste with a firm and tender texture, however if there are needle marks in an abalone steak, it is actually tenderized cuttlefish.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium calls abalone farming a highly regulated, well-managed industry due in part to the long, intense process of obtaining abalone farming permits from several state and regional agencies. In California, that includes the State Water Resources Board, Regional Water Quality Board, Coastal Development Commission. Once the farm is in operation, several agencies monitor it and any changes to the original facility design must be approved. Despite the existence of abalone farming operations, poaching remains prevalent. A third of abalone traded worldwide is estimated to have been caught illegally.
Red abalone counts for most of the abalone produced by Californian facilities, which grow the abalone either inland suspended in barrels or in cages suspended in sheltered waterways. China and Taiwan produce most of the world’s abalone. Strides are being made in producing farmed abalone sustainably internationally.
The largest Chinese farming operations grow their own kelp to feed abalone. Others use wild kelp. In California, where kelp has been harvested for various uses since 1911, some diving groups and conservation organizations are opposed to taking wild kelp for abalone farming. The Monterey Bay Aquarium cites a report by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary stating that kelp harvesting has had “no significant negative impacts on the kelp forest.” In South Africa research is under way to find alternatives to fresh kelp for feed.
Disease, Pathogen and Parasite Interaction
In the early 1990s, a parasitic pest called the sabellid worm that causes shells to become brittle and deformed ravaged South African abalone farms. However, government and industry research has nearly eradicated the problem, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In California, abalone farms are spot-tested to check for the worm, and can become certified as sabellid-free. A disease called withering syndrome has been even more problematic because it killed abalone. The bacteria that causes this disease is also found in natural systems, so it’s just as likely to damage wild populations, reports the Monterey Bay Aquarium. State and federal agencies monitor for the disease.