Abalone are large marine snails that are prized for their sweet, rich meat and striking mother-of-pearl shells. Older residents of California will remember a time when abalone in the coastal waters were plentiful; overfishing coupled with extremely slow natural growth caused a collapse in the population, resulting in an end to the commercial harvest in the 1990's. There is still a limited and tightly-regulated recreational harvest of abalone in California, but for the most part abalone has transformed from a common coastal dish into a rare, high-priced delicacy.
Demand for abalone is largest in Asia, where it is regarded culturally as a dish of significance, often served at weddings and special events. Given that it takes up to 5 years for an abalone to reach the traditional market size (~100 grams), supply from wild stocks have not been able to keep up with demand. Therefore, as with many overfished marine species before it, efforts began shifting from wild harvest to farming operations.
There are currently a handful of abalone farms in California producing a number of native species: these farms use cages, barrels, and/or tanks to spawn and rear abalone for eventual human consumption. Abalone at these facilities are fed kelp that is harvested from the ocean by special kelp-cutting boats; this kelp is the natural food of abalone in the wild and due to its quick growth and tightly-regulated harvest, no negative impacts on kelp have been seen in 100 years of harvest.
Because the abalone grow so slowly and are fed a natural diet, the water leaving the abalone farms does not accumulate the same levels of nutrients and wastes as other aquaculture operations, making abalone farming a sustainable endeavor. In fact, U.S. farmed abalone has received a green ranking (the highest possible) from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.
While abalone is certainly not a food for the masses, those who are lucky enough to enjoy it will testify to its incredible flavor and texture, its amazing health properties, and the stunning beauty of its shell. Wild populations of these amazing creatures are not expected to recover in California and as such we must remain committed to the development and propagation of this sustainable sector of aquaculture.