Under The Sea

Through a business arrangement with the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority that pumps deep sea water to the surface for use in ocean-based research and business, Big Island Abalone in Kona, Hawaii is using advanced aquaculture techniques to produce abalone for a growing world market.

This article originally ran in the November/December 2012 issue of Food Manufacturing.

Through a business arrangement with the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority that pumps deep sea water to the surface for use in ocean-based research and business, Big Island Abalone in Kona, Hawaii is using advanced aquaculture techniques to produce abalone for a growing world market.

Big Island Abalone’s Director of Research and Development, Cecilia Viljoen, presents two abalone — one male and one female. Distinct sexual characteristics are often not immediately evident until abalone reach later stages of growth.

Big Island Abalone Corporation was founded in 1997 and began selling abalone in 2001. The company now has 100 tons of growing abalone on hand and has 30 employees in a wide range of positions from technical to sales, which, according to Big Island Abalone’s Director of Research and Development, Cecilia Viljoen, makes it a mid-sized abalone producer.

For the uninitiated, abalone is a single-shelled mollusk, often called a “sea snail,” and is eaten widely in Japan and other parts of Asia. Historically, the creatures have been fished or harvested from the wild, but in recent decades, over-fishing has drastically reduced and threatened the wild population of abalone. Because of this, many countries have restricted or banned recreational fishing while limiting the commercial fishing quotas.

In the midst of these pressures, a small number of abalone farms like Big Island Abalone have sprung up in regions hospitable to abalone growth and development. Kona’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean and its clear, pure water gives Big Island Abalone a leg up on its competition.

The abalone production process is what Viljoen calls “labor intensive,” thus many of the company’s employees work on the farm itself, cleaning and maintaining the tanks and abalone.

4,000,000 Hungry Mouths To Feed

Even the algae used as feed is grown on premises at Big Island Abalone. The company originally began growing and feeding algae to its California Red abalone colony. However, market demands soon had the company considering other alternatives, and a few years later, Big Island Abalone switched to Ezo, which is more popular in Eastern countries like Japan.

In addition to the algae, Big Island Abalone’s shellfish are fed pelleted feeds when they reach a certain level of development. Abalones’ shell color is affected by their diet. Supplementing some of the cultivated algae with pellets reduces the algae production footprint on the farm.

Despite these supplemental feeding methods, at this point, one-third of the farm’s 10-acre space is consumed by algae production. Viljoen is currently in the midst of an experiment testing a mechanism for more efficient water use in both algae and abalone growth.

All of the production water used on the farm is provided by the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA). At NELHA, the state has constructed a complex deep-water pumping system, which brings clean, cold water from 3,000 feet deep to the surface. Companies like Big Island Abalone and others lease land at NELHA and buy the water for their businesses.

Sustainability In Production

After being removed from their tanks, abalone are separated from one another and conveyed through the farm to be packaged and shipped across the globe.

Because the water is harvested from such depths, it is quite clean and unlike production water found anywhere in the world. But, clean, cold deep-ocean water does not come cheap, and both abalone and algae need it to thrive. Viljoen is working on a project that would clean and recycle water from the abalone production to be used for growing algae.

But even this does not come without its challenges. Both algae and abalone require exacting specifications in water temperature — 15 and 18 degrees Celsius, respectively — in order to achieve optimum growth. Big Island Abalone currently mixes the deep-sea water pumped by NELHA with warmer water harvested closer to the surface and combines the two until the appropriate temperatures are reached.

Viljoen is hoping to develop a gravity system to transfer the water from the abalone to the algae tanks.

Continuous improvement is an important part of ongoing operations at Big Island Abalone. Viljoen says, “There are always changes. You have to fine tune it and make it as productive as you can while keeping your product good.”

She explains some of the recent changes on the farm. “We’ve improved our systems to improve our growth and give better access to feed. We’ve also installed quick-cleaning tanks to reduce the stress to the abalone.”

Abalone: Frequent Flyer

Though replaced periodically to keep the gene pool fresh, a stock of abalone is typically kept for years, spawning offspring that are moved to other tanks and grown for production.

IQF: The Future Of Freezing

Though Big Island Abalone ships the vast majority of its products live, a growing segment of its business can be found in Individual Quick Frozen (IQF) products.

Many meat, poultry and seafood processors are turning to IQF as a way of preserving food and extending shelf-life, while better preserving flavor and quality.

In the January/February 2012 issue of Food Manufacturing, Mark DiMaggio of Linde North America wrote that, “New nitrogen tunnel freezers are quick-freezing diced poultry, fajita strips, pizza toppings and other IQF products, eliminating the CO2 snow carryover associated with flighted freezers... High-efficiency, liquid nitrogen bottom-injection systems provide accurate temperature control for grinding, mixing and extrusion.”

By eliminating additional moisture and improving temperature control, IQF methods are improving product quality industry-wide. Processors of animal protein would find these methods especially useful, as traditional freezing methods can cause products to freeze together, and the addition of moisture from freezing snow can negatively impact product quality.

Kona’s location provides some very stark logistical challenges and opportunities. Of course, because of its location on Hawaii’s Big Island, Big Island Abalone is somewhat disconnected from its customers and must ship everything directly from the Kona International Airport.

On the other hand, NELHA is only a few miles from Kona International, and the delicate business of shipping live abalone would likely require air transportation regardless of the location of the farm. Also, Hawaii is uniquely positioned within relatively short shipping distance from both Japan and the Continental U.S. — where many of its largest customers are.

“We basically put pure oxygen in [the shipments],” says Viljoen. “Abalone have the ability to breathe through their skin a little bit if they’re damp and cold enough, so they can stay alive. I’ve seen shipments go as long as 40, even 50 hours. They’ll survive, as long as the temperature stays down.”

Size Isn’t Everything — But It Still Matters

The time it takes for abalone to reach a saleable size depends on several factors. Firstly, fluctuating customer preferences mean that different sizes of abalone are in demand at different times. Typically, farmed abalone tends to be smaller than fresh-caught. As over-fishing and other ecological factors have led to a dwindling fresh supply, abalone farms like Big Island Abalone have been there to fill the gap.

Perhaps predictably, farmers like to get their product to market as quickly as the market allows, so smaller farmed abalone quickly became the market norm. Customer preference, however, has shifted toward larger sizes, as they are seen as rarer. Of course, producing larger abalone means investing more time in growing them.

Dulse, a red algae fed to growing abalone, is grown on-site at Big Island Abalone using deep sea water pumped in from the Pacific Ocean.

Additionally, abalone does not grow at a uniform rate, and Viljoen says that ensuring the growth of all the abalone on the farm requires vigilance and a bit of logistical juggling. Even in a single small tank, some abalones grow more quickly. As they grow, their ability to feed grows along with them, and the smaller abalones are left with a smaller share of the food and an inability to thrive.

To secure even growth, Big Island Abalone staff must sift through each tank periodically, separating the abalone by size and then re-tanking them, matching like size with like, in order to ensure equitable food distribution within individual tanks. On average, growing abalone to maturity takes about 30 to 33 months “from spat to sale.”

Processing and cooking applications are performed off site and include the use of retort pouches as well as Individual Quick Frozen (IQF) processing.

Looking Ahead

“The cold, fresh water brings quality,” explains Viljoen. By creating a controlled environment in which the company can regulate and promote species growth, Big Island Abalone hopes to continue meeting market demand for abalone by exploring new product offerings and promoting the fresh, quality taste that its abalone delivers.

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