Food by VICE

California Abalone Are as Delicious as They Are Creepy

Abalone have a long and checkered history in California, having gone from a population surge in the 18th century to near-decimation in recent decades. But one Monterey Bay-based farm is producing these sweet, weird-looking mollusks sustainably.

by Brent Crane
May 30 2016, 9:00pm

To see The Monterey Abalone Company's product, you must crawl down a trapdoor ladder in their tiny office at the end of Municipal Wharf No. 2 on Monterey Bay. Watch your step once you get down there: You're underneath a dock and there are several gaps in the walkway that lead straight to the salty, chilled water below. It is down here—among monstrous barnacles, colorful starfish, squawky seagulls, frisky otters, and lazy seals—that one of California's few abalone producers farms its prized mollusks.

"Abalone is a very delicious product," says Art Seavey, a co-owner of the company, "Here in California, it is iconic."

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abalone_DSC_0032 Andrew Kim inspects the abalone.

The Monterey Abalone Company was founded in 1992. Seavey and his partner Trevor Fay hold around 300,000 red abalone, the biggest and most coveted species, in their sub-wharf farm. They grow the tasty sea snails using the natural offerings of the bay, with as little human tampering as possible. "Reds," as Fay and Seavey call them, are the most common abalone species on the West Coast and the only one that is legal to collect.

They are strange creatures, too. The marine mollusks—valued for their sweet, tender meat—are found in rocky coastal areas abundant in kelp, their main food source. Though they can grow up to the size of a dinner plate, most sold are around the size of a fist. They are sluggish growers, increasing in diameter at only about an inch a year; it takes around four years to grow them to market size.

Abalone have a rough domed shell, the outside of which has a line of alien-like respiratory pores. The inside is made of smooth nacre, or mother-of-pearl. Native American tribes of central California made hooks and jewelry out of them, and ate them, too.

Tiny black tentacles extend off the sides of the shell around the animal's foot, the main suctioning appendage. Their sucking strength is not to be underestimated: Free divers have reportedly drowned while trying to pry stubborn abalone off rocks with their hands, trapping their fingers in the process.

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abalone_DSC_0105 Art Seavey of Monterey Abalone Co.

Luckily for workers at the Monterey Abalone Co., death on the job is not something to fear. But that doesn't mean there's not plenty to worry about.

Caring for hundreds of thousands of abalone is a high-maintenance job, explains Andrew Kim, an aquaculturist who's worked below the wharf for two years.

The first worry is kelp. Two to three times a week, workers must take a boat out on Monterey Bay to collect fresh kelp for the abalone—nearly three tons a week. Workers use a mechanized pulley system to hoist the slimy stuff up from the skiff to the farm.

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The abalone are kept in boxy cages, organized vertically like a file drawer. The kelp is shoved in the slots between the rows and left for a week for the hungry sea snails to munch on. Periodically, Kim says, workers have to spray the cages down with a hose to keep invasive marine life from collecting on them.

Sometimes Kim has to put on a scuba tank and dive underneath the wharf to collect dropped tools or collect specimens for the company's side project of selling local marine life to aquariums and educators. In a small tank kept in a corner are Kim's recent finds: a sea cucumber, a few bored fish, a couple sea stars, and an urchin.

The farm is an impressively green enterprise, eschewing the use of any chemicals, antibiotics, or artificial feeds. The abalone are fed local kelp, and tidal currents sweep away any waste left behind by the flattened snails. In contrast, China's oceanic farms, where most of the world's abalone is grown, are massive and disrupt marine habitats by removing predators. Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch lists Chinese abalone as a product to be avoided.

Seavey and Fay take extra care to ensure that their operation, especially their kelp harvesting, isn't causing any harm. "We understand that the kelp beds are not just food for abalone, but they're food for a lot of other things and a habitat for other things," says Seavey. "We don't want to impact them in a way that's going to negatively affect other users of the kelp."

Seavey doesn't want to make waves. In the 90s he had a rough time convincing locals that his kelp harvesting wasn't negatively impacting the Bay. Local protests only died down following a scientific study in 2000, which confirmed he was using only one tenth of one percent of the kelp beds to feed his snails.

Seavey doesn't fault people for worrying, though. Monterey's coastal critters have had a tumultuous history, thanks to human intervention. In the 19th century, Russian fur traders decimated the population of sea otters, which are the snails' main predator. In their absence, abalone numbers exploded and proceed to vacuum up kelp. By the time American settlers reached California, the place was covered in mollusks—they just didn't know what to do with them.

But Chinese and Japanese immigrants did. They began harvesting the abalone, drying them, and sending shipments back to Asia, where the snails are revered for their supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities.

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It wasn't until the 1920s when a chef named Ernest Doelter invented the abalone steak—tenderized abalone fried in butter—that the sea snail became popular with Euro-Americans. "He'd sell an abalone dinner for a nickel," says Seavey. Today, he is immortalized as the Abalone King.

In the 30s and 40s, a commercial fishing industry developed around the mollusk. Armed with crowbars, hard-hat divers would spend hours collecting abalone in Monterey Bay and, eventually, along the whole California coast. Overfishing, the return of sea otter populations, and a disease called "withering foot syndrome" all contributed to the demise of abalone throughout the 70s and up to the present.

The state moved to save the snails, and in 1997 commercial abalone fishing was banned in California. Today you can only dive for them recreationally, and only in waters north of San Francisco, where it must be done without scuba gear. The regulation creates a de facto reserve at the depth to which people can't free-dive. Buying farmed abalone remains the only way for American consumers to purchase the California mollusks legally.

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abalone_DSC_0145_2 Fried abalone from Old Fisherman's Grotto.

There are only a handful of abalone farms in America, most of them on land. None of them—besides Monterey's—are under a wharf, according to Seavey. Due to the small number of growers and the sheer amount of labor that goes into farming them, abalone are a high-priced item. Monterey Abalone Co. sells their product for up to $23 a pound.

Despite the price tag, however, demand is rising. "We can't produce enough abalone," says Seavey. As the American palate has developed, so has consumers' demand for the sweet sea snail.

There are as many different ways to prepare abalone meat as there are abalone species—that is, hundreds. "The traditional California recipe is to shuck it, bread it, pound it, slice it, sauté it in butter, and squeeze some lemon on it. That's the way I cook it," says Seavey. "It's pretty filling because the meat is almost all protein. Abalone store their energy as glycogen; they don't store it as fat. It's dense muscle, a little bit sweet and salty. It's good," he says.

At Old Fisherman's Grotto, an iconic restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf, a recreational wharf across from Municipal Wharf No. 2, executive chef Juan Ponce prepares a dish of Seavey's abalone. Two still-squirming palm-sized abalone are shucked and then pounded with a mallet under plastic wrap. Ponce dips them in flour before dropping them in a pan of searing-hot clarified butter, allowing them to sizzle for less than a minute.

For north of $40, he serves them in the shell with sautéed spinach underneath, lemon caper sauce drizzled on top, and creamy spinach risotto, plus some sauteed veggies and fried noodles for crunch on the side. The meat is tender, though not too chewy—you can cut it with the side of your fork—and tastes closer to chicken then shellfish.

For a creepy-looking alien snail, it's pretty damn good.