The largest producer of farm-raised abalone in the United States offers seasonal public tours. But its last tours of 2010 will be offered at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sept. 15.
Ray Fields, farm-reared himself, studied oceanography at Humboldt State University. In 1984, his background was perfect to be selected president of The Abalone Farm Inc.
Living on site for 13 years, his first assignment was to build a pump house. The 24/7 lifestyle nurtured his young family and millions of abalones.
Today The Abalone Farm has 40 employees providing around-the-clock care.
Established in 1968, scientists John Perkins and David Layton foresaw the demise of Central Coast wild abalone harvesting.
Abalone divers and otters increased in numbers as the fishery dwindled. By 1983, the company was selling commercially harvested stock.
In 1987, California declared a moratorium on abalone diving and sport fishing and stiffly regulated Northern California.
It takes up to five years and the right conditions to raise an abalone for market. Adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, the Cayucos production company closely replicates the abalone’s natural habitat yet avoids most dynamic weather conditions and predator problems.
Spawning starts in May and again in October, producing millions of eggs. Few will hatch.
Those that do are kept in sealike conditions. At first they look like garden snails.
By day eight, they model abalone features, but lose swimming ability. Once transferred to the hatching building, 50,000 grow together in a tank under lights maintaining sea conditions and enhancing revenue for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. They graze on diatoms and algae.
After five to 11 months, 3,000 per tank might survive. Sorting into bags begins by size and date of birth. The cycle includes about 2 million abalones.
They thrive on kelp, and the beds near Cayucos are accessible, plentiful and non-polluted. This year has been a good year to harvest kelp — 22 pounds three days a week to feed the hungry critters for two days.
The market price has plummeted to half of what it was in 1995. Overseas distribution is also down with the economy.
However, the farm’s efficiencies in harvesting and distribution have kept them in the marketplace. They ship worldwide with a 95 percent survival rate if delivery is within 30 hours.
“When California closed the fishery, restaurants lost their abalone sources. We found a new marketplace — started processing,” Fields said. “Steaks require hand-pounding 20 to 30 times. Our abalones taste like wild because they eat the same natural foods.”
Reach Judy Salamacha at 801-1422 or jsalamacha @yahoo.com.