On a summer day, local fishermen whip their fishing lines off Municipal Wharf No. 2 in Monterey, California, while tourists wander along the wooden pier trying to spot frolicking sea otters in Monterey Bay. Most don’t realize that under the wharf, just below their feet, is a thriving aquaculture operation. 
 
Aquaculture is the cultivation of aquatic animals and plants in controlled environments. It’s essentially water-based farming. The Monterey Abalone Company raises abalone, a mollusk cultivated both for its iridescent shell (“mother-of-pearl”) and edible flesh.
 
Trevor Fay, the company’s co-owner, climbs down a ladder from inside his operation’s storefront to a wooden gangway under the pier. The cavernous work area is just about a meter above the glowing green water of the harbor
 
“Welcome to my office,” Fay announces.
 
Fay points out cages filled with abalone that dangle beneath the wharf. Bee-like swarms of juvenile rockfish congregate around the cages, while barnacles and sea anemones cling to the adjacent pilings. 
 
“You see the abundance of sea life here,” Fay says. “It’s an ideal spot.” 
 
The Monterey Abalone Company was founded in 1992 by Joe Cavanaugh and Art Seavey to satisfy a growing market for California red abalone—a large, edible species that is a coveted menu item for seafood restaurants. Cavanagh is now retired, and Fay became a partner in 1997. 
 
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, overharvesting and disease led to a decrease in the population of California red abalone. In 1997, a state moratorium on abalone collecting south of San Francisco went into effect. Individuals can collect up to 24 wild abalones a season—north of San Francisco—though they are only allowed to have three abalones in their possession at any one time.
 
Today, abalone farms can help satisfy the public’s appetite for the tasty marine organisms without endangering their population. There are currently 10 abalone farms on the California coast. One advantage of the Monterey Abalone Company’s farm is that its location on the pier makes it very accessible
 
“It’s a great space for abalone, because we can drive right up to the farm,” Seavey says.
 
Fay says his abalone farm is a sustainable operation that has little effect on the natural environment. 
 
“We are growing an indigenous species to the area, and we are using a natural, renewable resource to feed them,” he says.
 
That natural, renewable resource is kelp, a kind of large seaweed. Fay points to a 7-meter (22-foot) skiff docked to the gangway under the pier. It is loaded with 1,361 kilograms (3,000 pounds) of kelp recently harvested from Monterey Bay’s abundant kelp beds. Kelp can grow up to 0.3 meters (1 foot) a day in this area, and Fay says his business only harvests the canopy of the kelp beds while leaving the rest of the seaweed to thrive in the water. 
 
On the gangway, a worker in orange waders opens up an abalone cage and begins stuffing pieces of kelp into the wire enclosure. The abalones—a type of large sea snail—cling to fiberglass sheets in the cages and look like little cookies spread out on a baking pan. 
 
“It’s important that we have fresh kelp for the abalone,” Fay says.
 
Randy Lovell, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife aquaculture coordinator, confirms that operations like the Monterey Abalone Company are farming in a sustainable way. 
 
“Abalone eat very low on the food chain,” he says. “They eat kelp, which is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet.” 
 
According to Lovell, sustainable aquaculture is an appealing way to satiate the public’s appetite for seafood. 
 
“The more that we can satisfy the demand for seafood with farm-raised ways, the better,” he says. “As long as it is thought-out.”
 
From Farm to Table, in Four Years
 
Farming abalone is a long process. 
 
The company begins by collecting wild abalones from Timber Cove, California. (Timber Cove is about 161 kilometers (100 miles) north of San Francisco.) 
 
Hatchery
The abalones are brought from Timber Cove to the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, a marine science center associated with the California State University system. There, they become the responsibility of aquaculturist Peter Hain. Hain is a contractor for the Monterey Abalone Company, and previously worked for the Big Island Abalone Company in Kona, Hawaii.
 
Hain agitates the abalones with hydrogen peroxide, which compels the organisms to reproduce. He says he can get as many as 130,000 seedlings from just seven adult abalones. 
 
Settlement Tanks
After eight days in the hatchery, the tiny abalones are moved down to settlement tanks, which are nothing more than several white troughs in an undeveloped lot just 30 meters (100 feet) from the Pacific Ocean.
 
Here, Hain pulls a frame out of the seawater-filled tank. The frame holds a number of fiberglass sheets. The sheets are covered in diatoms, a type of algae. Hain identifies the few white spots on the sheets as abalone larvae. 
 
Until the abalones are larger than 4 millimeters (0.16 inch), diatoms are their food source. 
 
“My job for the next six months is to grow diatoms,” Hain says. “Diatoms grow really well here. I spend more time trying to slow them down!”
 
Once the abalones are large enough, they begin to consume dulse, a red seaweed that resembles a cheerleader’s frilly pom-pom. When the abalones are big enough to be contained in a mesh bag and ready to dine on kelp, they are transferred to the facility under the Monterey Municipal Wharf.
 
Monterey Bay
The abalone farm can cultivate close to a quarter of a million abalones. Once the abalones are large enough, they are sold, mostly to local and regional restaurants. 
 
“Our biggest market is the Monterey and San Francisco area,” Seavey says.
 
This barely puts a dent in the human appetite for abalone, Fay says. 
 
“Demand exceeds production,” he says.
 
Still, farming abalone is a slow process, Seavey admits.
 
“From the day they are born to the smallest size that we sell them, it will take four years,” he says.
Sea Farm
Red abalone is the largest species of abalone in California.
The Abalone Song
Songwriter George Sterling wrote “The Abalone Song” in the early 1900s, when he was a resident of Carmel, California. Get the full lyrics to "The Abalone Song" here. (Note: “Lazaroni” is a mildly derogatory term for homeless Italians.)  
 
By Carmel Bay, the people say
We feed the lazaroni
On Boston beans and fresh sardines
and toothsome abalone
 
He hides in caves beneath the waves
His ancient patrimony
And so ‘tis shown that faith alone
Reveals the abalone
 
Oh, Mission Point’s a friendly joint
Where every crab's a crony
And true and kind you’ll ever find
The faithful abalone
 
Oh, some folks think the Lord is fat,
Some think that He is bony;
But as for me, I think that he
Is like an abalone.
Shiny Shells
The color of an abalone’s shell can be influenced by the color of kelp it eats. 
 
“If we supplement [the abalone’s diet] with a little red kelp, it causes the red shell color,” says Art Seavey, founder of the Monterey Abalone Company.
abalone
Noun

type of large marine mollusk, related to sea snails.

abundant
Adjective

in large amounts.

accessible
Adjective

relatively easy to approach, use, or obtain.

adjacent
Adjective

next to.

agitate
Verb

to shake, or move in an quick, unregulated manner.

algae
Plural Noun

(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.

appetite
Noun

physical desire for food.

aquaculture
Noun

the art and science of cultivating marine or freshwater life for food and industry.

canopy
Noun

one of the top layers of a forest, formed by the thick leaves of very tall trees.

cavern
Noun

large cave.

compel
Verb

to force or cause something to be done.

congregate
Verb

to gather.

covet
Verb

to desire or wish for.

cultivate
Verb

to encourage the growth of something through work and attention.

dangle
Verb

to hang loosely.

diatom
Noun

type of algae, most of which are only one cell.

dine
Verb

to eat.

dock
Verb

to bring and secure a ship or boat to a space or facility.

dulse
Noun

type of coarse, edible red algae (seaweed).

edible
Adjective

able to be eaten and digested.

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

facility
Noun

a building or room that serves a specific function.

fiberglass
Noun

material made from fine strands of glass that are woven into fabric.

frolic
Verb

to play or have fun in a light-spirited manner.

gangway
Noun

narrow walkway.

Noun

part of a body of water deep enough for ships to dock.

harvest
Noun

the gathering and collection of crops, including both plants and animals.

hatchery
Noun

facility where fish and shellfish are bred, hatched, and nurtured in the early stages of life.

hydrogen peroxide
Noun

(H2O2) colorless, oily liquid mostly used as an antiseptic and bleaching solution.

ideal
Adjective

perfect.

Adjective

characteristic to or of a specific place.

iridescent
Adjective

displaying a wide range of colors that appear to shimmer and change depending on the angle of view or the angle of illumination.

juvenile
Noun

animal that is no longer a baby but has not reached sexual maturity.

kelp
Noun

type of seaweed.

larva
Noun

a new or immature insect or other type of invertebrate.

marine
Adjective

having to do with the ocean.

mollusk
Noun

large phylum of invertebrate animal, all possessing a mantle with a significant cavity used for breathing and excretion, a radula (except for bivalves), and the structure of the nervous system. 

moratorium
Noun

official stop or delay in activity.

overharvest
Verb

to use more of a resource than can be replaced naturally.

pier
Noun

platform built from the shore and extending over water.

piling
Noun

structure, usually made of metal or wood, hammered vertically into the ground to serve as a foundation or wall.

quell
Verb

to satisfy, subdue, or put an end to.

renewable resource
Noun

resource that can replenish itself at a similar rate to its use by people.

satiate
Verb

to fully satisfy or fulfill.

sea anemone
Noun

type of marine animal related to corals and jellies.

seaweed
Noun

marine algae. Seaweed can be composed of brown, green, or red algae, as well as "blue-green algae," which is actually bacteria.

skiff
Noun

small boat able to be operated by one person.

sustainable
Adjective

able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

trough
Noun

long, narrow, open-topped box usually used to hold food or water for animals.

wader
Noun

tall, waterproof boot.

wharf
Noun

structure built above or alongside a body of water, usually so boats can dock.

Funder

This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1114251. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.