If Otis Redding would’ve ventured south of the Frisco bay, he might’ve found himself sitting on the dock of Municipal Wharf 2 right here in Monterey. Constructed nearly a century ago, in 1926, it is the hub of today’s local seafood trade. At the very end of that wharf sits a large, weathered, blue-gray warehouse. Tucked inside that warehouse, behind a layer of distressed wood planks, you’ll find the Monterey Abalone Company, one of three remaining commercial abalone farms in the state of California.
Abalone is a mollusk, or “snail of the sea,” that has been fished commercially in the Monterey Bay for over 100 years. Very popular in Asia, it was the early Chinese and Japanese immigrants who first recognized the abundance of abalone in the waters off the coast of Monterey. This particular species, now recognized as the California red abalone, lives among the rocks on the shallow sea bottoms off the coast of California, feasting on and protected by the dense forest of giant kelp that provides a habitat for thousands of other marine species.
Inside the Monterey Abalone Company, in a cluttered office behind a shelf display of beautiful iridescent abalone shells, is company co-owner Art Seavey, who, along with his partner Trevor Fay, has been cultivating and harvesting abalone in Monterey since the early 1990s.
“We’re very proud of what we do here,” Seavey says. “We’ve developed a highly efficient and sustainable operation, both for the abalone themselves and the hand-harvested kelp that we’re feeding them.”
Seavey leads the way from his office to a large, gaping hole in the floor, where he hands over a pair of rubber boots before continuing down a slippery ladder to the abalone underworld. Over the noise of the surging tides and the barking sea lions, Seavey gets into some of the intricacies of this aquaculture farming operation.
There are about 250 cages suspended below the wharf, where abalone live in their native habitat. The sturdy mesh cages are operated by ropes and pulleys, and can hold up to 3,000 abalone at any given time. As they grow, at a rate of approximately 1 inch per year, they are sorted by size and remain in the cages until they’re ready to be harvested, packed and sold.
The flavor profile for abalone has been described by some as a cross between veal and lobster. It’s a white meat that, once tenderized, can be served as a delicious and versatile option for seafood chefs. Although it’s been eaten in Asia for centuries, abalone wasn’t popularized in California until the early 20th century, when Monterey was at the epicenter of a bustling abalone business and Pop Ernest’s Seafood Restaurant on the wharf was the go-to place for abalone lovers from all over the world.
Nowadays, as the aquaculture industry has tightened regulations to protect the species from poachers and other threats, abalone isn’t as readily available in the marketplace. The state of California hasn’t issued a new commercial permit for abalone in over 20 years, so California’s three remaining abalone operations – in Davenport, Goleta and Monterey – are the only game in town.
Currently, Seavey estimates there are over 250,000 abalone living in the cages below the Wharf 2. About 90 percent of that will ultimately end up on the menus of restaurants on the Monterey Peninsula and in the Bay Area.
“We do ship our product to places like Los Angeles and New York, but the bulk of restaurant business is local,” Seavey says. “Abalone can live up to about 36 hours as long as they’re kept cool.”
One standout preparation for him is at Aubergine in Carmel, where “Chef Justin [Cogley] does an absolutely wonderful job with our product,” Seavey says. Even if a visit to Aubergine isn’t on your calendar, abalone-curious locals are in luck. The Monterey Abalone Company sells abalone direct to consumers from their warehouse on the wharf and offers preparation tips. If you find yourself humming Otis Redding during your outing, all the better.