10 Things I Learned About Abalone

On a visit to the Abalone Farm in the town of Cayucos, between Morro Bay and Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast, here’s what I learned about this strange and exotic seafood with its opalescent shell.

1. Abalone are not bivalves like clams or scallops. Rather, they’re univalves (single-shelled mullosks) related to snails.

2. Like snails, abalone have feet. The foot – basically everything you see from the abalone’s underside – can cling to just about anything and fold in half to grab food. When prying an abalone off of a rock, a wall or another abalone, humans have to be very careful not to injure the foot as it could be fatal to the abalone.

3. All the abalone I’ve ever eaten had the approximate consistency of a pencil eraser, but that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. According to the Abalone Farm’s Brad Buckley, fresh abalone should snap like jicama. Often, the bigger the abalone, the tougher the meat, but even smaller abalone can be tough if it was mishandled or died in the shell.

4. Most abalone are female. During spawning season, females blast anywhere from 10,000 to millions of eggs into the water and males up to 100,000 times that in sperm. Some females turn into males during spawning season. Clownfish also do this (see: Ten Things I Learned in Australia).

Sieves used for sorting abalone

1 to 2-year-old abalone

5. Newly spawned abalone are microscopic, and by about nine months they’re about the size of a fingernail. Abalone have to be sorted for size so that some don’t dominate the others as they’re transferred to from nurseries to concrete tanks. It takes three to four years for an abalone to grow to saleable size (about the diameter of a grapefruit for one- to three-ounce steaks), but they can grow up to 12 inches across.

6. Should you ever need to make an abalone fall asleep (for example, for sorting), pump carbon dioxide into its water. When the water is re-oxygenated, the abalone will wake up as if nothing happened.  

7. The Abalone Farm ships about a million abalone a year. Much of it goes live to be sold from tanks in Asian markets in the US. Abalone can live out of water for about 30 hours. About 25 percent of the farm’s sales are to Japan.

8. Black abalone and white abalone are on the endangered species list. California red abalone (the kind farmed here) is not.

9. Abalone eat algae and seaweed. At the farm they get a scraggly, red variety called dulse. Humans can eat dulse too, in seaweed salad.

10. Otters love to eat abalone. Cats, to my surprise, do not.