Happy as an Abalone? Farming Sustainable Seafood

roberto-verzo-abaloneThe oceans are in trouble. They’re rising, they’re warming, and they’re getting more acidic. However, people love seafood, and many cultures rely on the products of the sea to survive. There are also many of us for whom the love of seafood moves beyond survival into the gourmet. We love to try new ocean delicacies. But our interest has put a burden on the oceans: declining stocks of just about every fish in the ocean, particularly those that we love to eat. Tuna? Yes, that’s declining due to the trade in sushi. Shellfish? Populations can take a while to replenish, so wild harvesting can damage shellfish populations.

While ocean-based fish farming is controversial due to its large scale and the waste products and diseases that sometimes flow from fish farms, shellfish farming is less well-known. One growing industry is abalone farming, the farming of those lovely, iridescent shellfish whose shells are popular for clothing and decoration. Abalone are mollusks, which means that they are related to the snail. Abalone species are found at depth and also in intertidal areas. Since they are able to reproduce when they are quite small, they make a sustainable growth area for shellfish farming.

The harvest of wild abalone is not sustainable, and in fact it is often a harvest of a threatened species. In California, the black, pink, white and flat abalone are all protected. In New Zealand and South Africa, as well as in other countries around the world, abalone must be collected with a permit and the illegal sale and poaching of abalone is common. While wild stocks are protected in many countries, there is a thriving black market in abalone. Abalone sales bring a high price on the black market.

What’s a shellfish lover to do? The Seafood Watch Guide considers hatchery-raised abalone to be one of the most sustainable choices for those who eat seafood. Hatchery-reared abalone are normally reared in tanks when they are very small. After that, they are moved to an area with moving water, called a raceway. The abalone feed on kelp. This highly-regulated environment allows for harvest without damage to the native abalone populations, and it also allows for effective waste treatment.

Help keep the populations of abalone in the oceans. By being a sensitive consumer of seafood, you can also help monitor illegal harvesting of abalone. Watch for larger abalone in restaurants, since hatchery abalone should all be under four inches in size. Any abalone that is larger than four inches long is likely harvested from threatened wild populations.

Do you eat shellfish? How do you strive to be an ethical and sustainable consumer of shellfish?