The days of the $3 abalone sandwich and the backyard abalone barbecue are mostly gone in California. It's been two years since the state banned commercial harvesting of the succulent shellfish in the wild. So scarce are abalone south of San Francisco that even sport diving for them is forbidden. But a group of entrepreneurs is hoping to resurrect the state's abalone tradition, with farm-raised mollusks that would be sold at home and abroad.
Four separate upstart operations are seeking permits to raise as many as 2.2 million red abalone in floating wood-and-plastic cages in picturesque Pillar Point Harbor--an unprecedented level of production that has raised objections from environmentalists and fishermen who have been the mainstays here for four decades.
Marine preservationists fear the abalone will gobble up too much kelp and harm native species. Fishermen say the cages will take anchoring space that they must have, particularly in storms.
Staff for the state Coastal Commission, which will consider the proposal today, says those problems can be mitigated and has recommended approval of the aquaculture program, which could more than triple the state's current commercial abalone production.
Doug Hayes, one of those who wants to raise abalone here, compared the hostility toward his proposal to the old range wars between sheep and cattle ranchers. "It's amazing how many people are against me," said Hayes, 42, now a mechanical engineer in the Silicon Valley. "With any kind of development along the coast, there are a lot of people with a lot of strong feelings."
The three other small companies that propose to raise the shellfish also have no substantial experience with aquaculture on this scale, prompting one of the more than 500 fishermen who ply the waters here to call the abalone farmers "experimenters . . . who don't know what they are doing."
The fishermen say the federal government expanded Pillar Point Harbor in the early 1960s specifically to offer a safe refuge for their vessels.
"We have the right to the harbor. It was built for us," said Bob Miller, president of a San Francisco-based fishermen's association. "They want to take it away from us and give it to four guys who want to grow abalone cheap."
Actually, the four abalone farms would take up only about 1 1/2 acres of the harbor and eliminate 30 to 40 of the current 286 anchorages for transient fishing boats. Fishermen argue, however, that those moorings can be critical when the fishing fleet is out in force and needs to retreat to safety because of heavy weather. One called the extra moorings "a matter of life and death."
"It's like a fire truck," said Miller, 70, who has been fishing for 30 years. "Even if you are not driving it around all the time, you still need it. It's not expendable."
At least two marine preservation groups have questioned whether kelp beds can thrive with the 1,800 tons of the vegetation that the abalone farmers may eventually harvest to feed to their shellfish. They also said that other species, particularly sensitive bottom organisms, may not survive if the abalone severely deplete the oxygen content in the water.
The four abalone farmers have weathered more than five years of regulatory reviews by the Coastal Commission, the state Department of Fish and Game, the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the local harbor district. One is so fed up he no longer attends meetings.
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations has given notice that it may go to court to block the abalone farms. And the new abalone farmers can expect to find another set of hurdles in the marketplace.
With abalone steaks selling for as much as $89 a pound retail, some investors have seen the dark-shelled gastropod as a potential gold mine. But most of California's 13 active abalone farmers say the reality is far less lucrative than neophytes might imagine.
The industry has for the last five years sharply cut its stock in an effort to combat a parasitic worm that deforms the abalone's shell and stunts its growth. Now that the sabellid worm has been largely wiped out, production is up.
But the prolonged economic crisis in Asia has cut demand from Japan and other countries that were once the world's major abalone consumers. In addition, most abalone is not sold at the premium, fully processed price. Many Asian consumers and restaurants prefer, in fact, to buy the shellfish whole and live at prices that range from $15 to $18 a pound.
Factor in intensive labor needed to raise the shellfish, the four years it takes to rear a single abalone (harvest length: 3 1/2 inches), intense competition from Chile, South Africa, Asia and Iceland, and suddenly, the industry seems not so sparkling, insiders say.
"It's not a very lucrative business. I don't know a single abalone farmer anywhere in the world that is making a profit," said Ray Fields, president of the Abalone Farm Inc., north of Morro Bay, which produced about two-thirds of the 162,000 pounds of the seafood farmed in the state last year.
Nevertheless, the newcomers say they are prepared for the challenge. They hope to save money by raising their abalone in the ocean, without having to pump in water or oxygen. If their crop is successful, they have said they hope to expand the market beyond the Asian population here and abroad who buy most of the abalone today.
Said Jon Locke, another of those who hopes to open an abalone farm in Half Moon Bay: "This might put abalone back on the menu again."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.