The Abalone Industry in South Australia

Abalone, native to Australia’s pristine coastal waters, is a highly prized shellfish. Unlike scallops and oysters that have two hinged shells, abalone has just one. As such, it is a delicate and time consuming seafood to harvest. It is also very sensitive to the environment and has a tight quota system in place to ensure ecological sustainability.

History of Abalone in South Australia

South Australian’s abalone fishery began in the late 1960s when demand for the sea mussel grew in Asia. Initially, the fishery had over 100 licences but that number was gradually reduced due to input controls including a non-transferability policy.

Today, Western Abalone based in the Eyre Peninsula fishing town of Port Lincoln is a co-operative of 14 licences and one of the largest processors and marketers of greenlip and blacklip abalone. Their General Manager, Kane Williams says the quota reductions in the Western Zone are unique because they have been voluntarily agreed upon by industry and not mandated by government.

Around 90 per cent of wild caught abalone in Australia is exported, with Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai the biggest markets. Blue Sky Fisheries, an Adelaide based seafood marketing and trading company that markets abalone for a number of fishermen including the Edmunds brothers, says that Hong Kong is the world’s most demanding and discerning consumer.

Where Abalone are found in South Australia

Abalone are a mollusc that attach themselves to rocky reefs using large muscular feet. They are a delicacy for many around the world and the firm meat is considered by some to be the equivalent of seafood escargots. The shells of this bivalve are prized for their iridescent nacre.

Wild caught abalone are harvested from the cool clean waters of Australia’s southern coastlines. Experienced Australian divers brave the chilly water to collect the precious molluscs from the ocean floor. Across the country there are over 100 licences to harvest abalone. The majority of these are in South Australia.

The Western Zone of South Australia produces 70 per cent of the state’s 488 tonnes of wild caught green lip abalone. Kane Williams, General Manager of Western Abalone which holds 14 abalone diving licences on the Eyre Peninsula says sustainability has been at the heart of all decisions made by the co-operative in the past decade.

The region is also at the forefront of land-based abalone farming. This happens on artificial reefs at sea or in cages suspended off the bottom and in land-based tanks. It’s a highly intensive process that requires the use of sophisticated hatchery and nursery technology.

Farmed Abalone

In South Australia, farmed abalone is produced at several farms. The most significant challenges faced by this industry include energy costs, labor issues and a tough regulatory framework. It can be difficult to make money when the supply of water is so high, while the cost of pumping that water over a long distance requires a substantial amount of energy.

The young spat spend 8 to 12 months in settlement tanks before they are transferred to grow-out tanks. These tanks are large flow-through systems that utilise filtered and sterilized seawater. These tanks are covered in greenhouse mesh to stop predators and the water is constantly being replaced with fresh seawater. The feed for the abalone is either a nutrient rich natural seaweed or a symbiotic mixture of artificial and natural feeds.

In order to be ASC certified, abalone farms must meet a strict set of environmental requirements. These are designed to ensure that the farms don’t impact on critical ecological functions, that escapes of abalone are minimised and that biosecurity is rigorously implemented. ASC farms also have to adhere to strict disease management protocols to minimise the risk of diseases entering the system. As such, the ASC certification has become an important mark of quality in the market.

Export Markets

Abalone is harvested from the cool, unpolluted waters of Australia’s southern coastline and is revered as a delicacy in many Asian cultures. The Eyre Peninsula is a leading producer of premium quality Greenlip and Blacklip abalone. The abalone is harvested by experienced divers who brave the cold waters and sharks to hand pick each individual mollusc. Each abalone is then cleaned and partially processed on board the specialised fishing vessel before being chilled for export.

As with rock lobster, the quota-managed abalone fishery has a range of restrictions on ownership and transfer. While anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been some concentration of ownership in the abalone fishery, permanent transfers are prohibited and this restricts the market.

The quota-managed abalone industry in South Australia is highly competitive, with an emphasis on branding and marketing. This includes a range of marketing initiatives to target niche markets, including the US and Japan. The majority of the quota-managed abalone fleet is owned and operated by small family businesses that are committed to sustainability. This is an important factor in ensuring that the abalone industry remains viable and sustainable. As a result of these commitments, the total fleet capacity has not changed since ITQ management was introduced in the abalone fishery in the late 1980s.

The value of Abalone to the Economy

Abalone is one of Australia’s most valuable shellfish. Their meat provided protein for coastal communities and their iridescent shells were used for tools, ornaments and jewellery. Successful white abalone recovery could restore their historic social and economic value.

The Eyre Peninsula’s mild climate and pristine ocean makes it ideal for growing high quality abalone in a sustainable way. Abalone farmers have embraced innovative aquaculture techniques that are not subject to size and quota restrictions, which allows them to meet demand for the highly prized greenlip abalone while reducing pressure on vulnerable wild stock.

Jonas Woolford is a second-generation diver from Streaky Bay on the state’s West Coast who, along with his brother Tobin, operates Eyrewoolf Abalone. He says that Hong Kong is the biggest market for live abalone but New York, Singapore and Sydney are also valuable export markets.

While many abalone fishers are family businesses, the industry is relatively small and dominated by a handful of larger companies. Adelaide-based seafood marketing and trading company Blue Sky Fisheries markets abalone for a number of South Australian fishermen including the Edmunds brothers. Its Managing Director David Pickles says that Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai are the most valued export markets for live abalone but New York, Melbourne and Sydney are also important.

Find an Adelaide restaurant that serves Abalone

As one of Australia’s premium seafoods, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that doesn’t serve abalone. However, if you’re looking to dine on fresh abalone in a sustainable way, try and book ahead or visit a venue that sources its produce locally.

Generally speaking, wild caught abalone tends to taste stronger than farmed varieties due to the physical strain divers put themselves through in order to pick them from crevices and under boulders on rocky reefs. In addition, the quotas that divers are allowed to catch have been reduced because of the risk and environmental concerns.

Farmed abalones, on the other hand, are the go-to if you’re concerned about sustainability, as they have a softer texture and mild flavour, says chef Tan. He also notes that farmed abalones can be tweaked to have a more natural environment, which gives them a higher yield.

To make sure you’re eating genuine Australian abalone, look out for the following signs at your local Chinese restaurant:

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