Sea Farm

Sea Farm

A sustainable aquaculture operation raises abalone.


3 - 10

NGS Resource Carousel Loading Logo
Loading ...

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.) HatcheryThe 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 TanksAfter 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 BayThe 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.

Fast Fact

The Abalone SongSongwriter 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 sayWe feed the lazaroniOn Boston beans and fresh sardinesand toothsome abalone He hides in caves beneath the wavesHis ancient patrimonyAnd so ‘tis shown that faith aloneReveals the abalone Oh, Mission Point’s a friendly jointWhere every crab's a cronyAnd true and kind you’ll ever findThe faithful abalone Oh, some folks think the Lord is fat,Some think that He is bony;But as for me, I think that heIs like an abalone.

Fast Fact

Shiny ShellsThe 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.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources

National Science Foundation