Diving Abalone Augusta

Get ready for abalone to make a splash on menus – local fisherman Brad Adams has created a world-first, innovative, sustainable way to harvest these tasty treasures of the sea, just off the southern coast. Norman Burns chats to him about the underwater world of harvesting this seafood delicacy.

Local fisherman Brad Adams

For a fish-like creature that’s covered in shell, let’s get one thing clear: an abalone is not a shellfish. The abalone is, in fact, a reef dwelling snail – and a delicious one at that. The abalone is also worth its weight in gold as a sought-after delicacy in Asia, particularly China, which is where WA fisherman and entrepreneur Brad Adams comes in.

Brad can’t recall the first time he tasted abalone, but even as a young child he always wanted to be an abalone diver and follow in the footsteps of his late father Terry, who pioneered the WA commercial abalone diving industry in the 1960s. Now Brad, together with partners and investors, is doing some pioneering of his own in the industry, by successfully establishing Ocean Grown Abalone (OGA), the world’s first sustainable abalone ranch, in the seas off Augusta.

“I actually have no recollection of first tasting abalone so it must have been part of my diet from a very young age,” he says. “I still enjoy eating, cooking and sharing it with people today. I got my PADI dive ticket at age 12 and have logged thousands of hours underwater ever since,’’ says Brad, whose two younger brothers Darren and Nathan are also abalone divers and manage the family’s licence.

Diving Abalone Augusta
On the hunt

“There was a bit of competition when we were all commercial abalone divers a few years ago, as we were diving separate licences, fishing the same areas,” says Brad. “Now I have gone in a different direction with the ranching of an abalone business, where the ‘hunting’ element has been removed and we now farm the ocean, tending the crop.”

Diving for abalone is potentially a risky business. As well as the challenges of working underwater, there is also the threat of great white sharks or, as Brad calls them, the grey suits.

“You don’t stay in this game for long or have success if you think about the grey suits all the time,’’ says Brad. “I enjoy the varied weather conditions we dive in and once in the water I go into work mode and never even give sharks a second thought. Time goes so quickly when working underwater that two hours seems like only 10 minutes on land.”

Ocean Grown Abalone
Sustainable harvesting

OGA takes juvenile abalone grown over 18 months at the 888 Abalone PL Hatchery in Bremer Bay and then transplants them onto artificial reefs in Flinders Bay off Augusta. When ready – and with a three-year turnaround patience is the key here – the abalone, plump and juicy, are harvested, flash frozen and shipped off to top restaurants and seafood retailers throughout Australia and Asia. OGA hopes to eventually harvest 100 tonnes of abalone a year (globally, around 5,000 tonnes is gathered from the wild).

Abalone fetches around $27 a kilogram, well down from nearly $50 several years ago, and, like all commodities, is sensitive to fluctuations in the global economy or environmental issues that affect supply and demand. China’s domestic output from farmed abalone has also increased dramatically, but this is where OGA can play its trump card with ‘quality over quantity’; supplying abalone of the highest quality from WA’s pollution-free seas to the premium market.

“The OGA ranch in Flinders Bay is where two of the world’s great oceans – the Southern and Indian – collide to provide pristine, clean, nutrient-rich waters that provide unrivalled environmental conditions in which to grow the world’s most premium abalone,’’ says Brad, who agrees that OGA’s biggest market potential is Asia, particularly China.

“The Chinese regard it as one of the ‘five treasures of the seas’. It is seen as an important food to have at celebrations, such as weddings and important business meetings, to show face (respect) from the host to invited guests.’’

Serving up the delicious delicacy

WA has 15 species of abalone (or haliotidae in scientific terms) but just three – Roe’s abalone (Haliotis roei); Greenlip abalone (Haliotis laevigata) and Brownlip abalone (Haliotis conicopora) – are large enough to be fished. OGA concentrates on the Greenlip abalone, which are first harvested wild from the ocean. When they reach 40mm, the abalone are ready to return to the wild and their new homes at OGA’s purpose-built reefs off Augusta.

The artificial reefs also attract many other species of fish, including dhufish, wrasse, King George whiting and rock lobster, a win-win for the marine environment.

“We then let Mother Nature take over and the abalone grow as nature intended on those reefs, feeding on the abundant seaweeds drifting past for up to three years,” says Brad. “Our dive teams then harvest the abalone at an average size of 350 grams, or 130mm in length. “The product harvested is exactly the same high quality product and there are no restrictions on how many you can harvest, as there are in the wild fishery (who have quotas set by the Department of Fisheries to ensure the resource remains sustainable).”

The live, fresh abalone are taken to OGA’s processing factory in Augusta where they are ‘shucked’. When Leeuwin Estate head chef Dany Angove introduced OGA’s product to three-star Michelin chef Mossimo Bottura at the Margaret River Gourmet Escape last year, the Italian was ‘blown away’. “He said it was the most amazing seafood he’d ever tasted. He called it the ‘meat of the sea’,” says Dany.

Brad’s favourite way of preparing abalone is sashimi-style. “Slice a fresh abalone thinly and serve with wasabi and sashimi soy sauce… delicious. You get a uniquely flavoured taste of the ocean, with a texture that is indescribable, firm but tender at the same time,” he says.

Abalone Truffle

5 Ways to Eat Abalone

  1. BBQ, MEDITERRANEAN-STYLE Flash sear on a hot BBQ, and then drizzle over a dressing of olive oil/lemon juice/ minced garlic and serve with crusty bread.
  2. ASIAN-STYLE #1 Grill, then slice the meat and add to an Asianstyle salad with namjin dressing (aThai mix of palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice and chilli).
  3. ASIAN-STYLE #2 Thinly serve a fresh abalone and serve with wasabi and sashimi soy sauce (a sweeter version than traditional soy sauce).
  4. PAN FRIED Take fresh abalone, slice into medallions, coat in a mixture of flour, pepper, salt and then pan-fry in a blend of butter and canola oil until golden brown.
  5. STEAMED ABALONE, CANTONESE STYLE Clean the abalone, return to the shell, garnish with julienne ginger and finely chopped garlic and steam for 3-5 minutes. Before serving, splash over a tablespoon of soy sauce mixed with hot oil, julienne spring onion and coriander