Saving the world's rarest shellfish

Prized in the Far East as an aphrodisiac, the abalone is the planet's most sought-after shellfish. It is also the most endangered. But a marine biologist is fighting a one-man battle to save it from extinction. John Lichfield reports from Plouguerneau

The creature has a shell which vaguely resembles a human ear. It is gnarled on the outside, brilliantly coloured inside and serially perforated along one edge. If this were truly an ear, it would have to be the ear of an ageing punk-rocker.

M. Huchette - a young Frenchman who speaks excellent English with a cheerful "no worries" Melbourne accent - turns over the strange shell, and reveals an even stranger creature inside. Dark, secretive and slimy-looking, this is the abalone, the most expensive and endangered seafood in the world.

Here, in a nondescript, beige-coloured shed close to the sea-shore in western Brittany, baby and adolescent abalone are thriving, by the millions. Elsewhere, their outlook is grim.

The abalone - ormeau to the French, paua to the Maori and takabushi to the Japanese - is a delicacy which drives Asian, and especially Chinese, gourmets wild. In Japan and Korea, they are mythical beings, and considered to be an unfailingly effective male aphrodisiac.

To the marine biologist, the abalone is also a fascinating creature, a gastropod, or form of large, underwater snail, which "sits up" to graze on seaweed, hides under rocks and runs away from hungry crabs and starfish by modulating its single foot into four separate "legs".

Human predators are more difficult to shake off: they dive into coastal waters and prise abalone from their rocks with iron bars or hooks.

So intense is the appetite for abalone in south-east Asia, and especially among the newly rich in China, that prices have increased tenfold in the past 20 years. At €30 a kilo wholesale - substantially more than lobster - the abalone, ormeau or "ear of the sea", is becoming big business. In Japan, the retail price can rise to €100 a kilo, or roughly £30 a pound, shells included.

Abalone, eaten cooked or raw, is said to have a haunting and subtle taste and texture, richer than scallops and chewier than octopus. It is one of the indispensable ingredients in a shark's fin soup called "Buddha Jumps over the Wall", which is sold at Kai, the exclusive Chinese restaurant in Mayfair in London, at £120 a dish.

Such is the Asian appetite for abalone, and the profits on offer, that the world's 130 different, edible species are being hoovered up - legally and illegally - at an alarming rate. Intensive diving for abalone is a lucrative trade in Australia, New Zealand, Africa, California - and increasingly in France.

The European form of abalone (Haliotis tuberculata) - claimed by some as the most delicious of all - was ignored for centuries by all but the Bretons and the Channel Islanders. In recent years, it has been harvested in great numbers - some legally, more poached - along the coasts of Brittany and lower Normandy. The Channel Island fishery is closed but locals are allowed to search for "ormers" under rocks at low tide for their own consumption.

Officially, the French abalone catch is subject to strict quotas and limited to 60 tons a year. The illegal catch is probably several times that amount. An ormeau poaching and smuggling ring involving 60 people was recently broken up in a village in western Brittany. The alleged culprits are awaiting trial.

The global abalone boom is part of a wider phenomenon. The insatiable Asian appetite for seafood, the scarcity of favoured fish species in Asian waters and improved air freight services are putting pressure on many depleted stocks worldwide, from tuna to sea urchins.

Tuna stocks in the Atlantic and Mediterranean have fallen by 80 per cent in the past decade. The Japanese hunger for red tuna to make sushi and sashimi has encouraged elaborate methods of quota-busting.

Large fish can fetch up to €200,000 on the Japanese market. Some French and Spanish fishermen catch them when they are small, fatten them up in sea cages and fly them direct to Japan, evading quayside quota counts and inspections. Abalone is in similar, or even greater, demand.

The exquisite-tasting gastropod has already been nearly wiped out by over-fishing, pollution and disease along the western seaboard of the US. It is under intense pressure off southern and western Africa. A world conference of marine biologists forecast this year that it will be all but extinct in African waters by 2007 or 2008.

Australia and New Zealand supply 70 per cent of the world abalone market and impose stringent controls on fishing. Even they find it impossible to prevent massive poaching. Last year China imported twice as much Australian abalone as Australians are legally supposed to catch or farm.

This is modest cheating, compared to what is happening on the coasts of Africa. Chinese imports from South Africa are three and a half times greater than the entire, official, national "catch".

Korean boats queue up off the coast of west Africa - where there are few catch restrictions - to buy tons of abalone at relatively low prices from local divers and fishermen.

A renewed outbreak of a mysterious and mortal disease among native abalone along the coast of the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy this summer has increased fears that the European species is also under serious threat. Spanish stocks have already been severely damaged by pollution and oil spills, so much so that the fishery has virtually closed.

Enter the aforementioned Sylvain Huchette, 31, a young French engineer and marine biologist, who studied abalone in Australia for three years. He came home with a doctorate, Edna Everage accented English, and a bright idea for making mon- ey and saving the native French ormeau, also known as the ormel.

Abalone used to be notoriously difficult to farm. They grew very slowly and there was a high casualty rate among the young. A few years ago an Australian scientist devised a method for rearing the tiny molluscs on elaborate mixtures of algae, reproducing their feeding habits in the wild. Abalone farming in Australia is now booming.

M. Huchette and his partner have introduced Australian-rules abalone rearing to France. At Plouguerneau, 20 miles north of Brest in western Brittany, beside a large, beautiful, rocky sea inlet called the Aber Wrac'h, they have set up Europe's first advanced, large-scale abalone hatchery and farm.

By the end of next year, M. Huchette expects to have 15 tons of abalone a year to sell on to the Asian market. In other words, this one farm, in a shed about the size of a large country garage, would increase French (legal) exports of abalone by 25 per cent. In the longer run, M. Huchette hopes to produce up to 50 tons of abalone a year (€1.5m worth of shellfish at current prices).

But his real dream is to encourage the creation of dozens of abalone farms along the Breton coast. He would then specialise in hatching the tiny abalone which the other farms could fatten on the fine, native Breton seaweed. M. Huchette has even looked into the possibility of creating similar farms in England.

He was rebuffed on environmental grounds because abalone is not a native English species. (It can, however, occasionally be found in Cornwall.)

"The demand for abalone is there and will not go away," says M. Huchette, who has also worked in China.

"For the Chinese, as their country grows richer, abalone have become a symbol of wealth. In China, if people have money, they are supposed to display it and, if they give a banquet for their friends and family, that means they are expected to have abalone on the menu."

M. Huchette is also involved in scientific studies looking at the threats to the French abalone population.

He says: "In France, unlike Australia, there are no reliable statistics and no way of knowing who is taking what from where. All I can do as a scientist is observe what I observe, and hear what I hear, and point out what has already happened elsewhere. Overfishing and lack of controls caused the collapse of the stocks of abalone on the Californian coast and the same thing could easily happen here."

"If we can farm abalone on a large scale," he continues, "we can create a new industry which will help coastal communities. But we can also reduce the pressure on stocks and help to save the wild abalone."

M. Huchette seizes an abalone from one of 40 blue plastic tanks which hold his "breeding herd". These are male and female abalone, which he captured from the wild by diving among the rocky islets in this savagely beautiful part of Finistère.

The adult abalone that he chooses is a male, eight years old and about six inches long. Although abalone are usually thought of as tropical creatures, they thrive in the cold - but never too cold - waters off Brittany and Normandy.

Nonetheless, M. Huchette likes to give his breeding abalone a little burst of warmth - equivalent to an 18-30s sun, sex and sand break in the Caribbean - to encourage their amorous instincts. The eggs and sperm they eject are then scooped up and brought together, to produce millions upon millions of microscopic larvae.

Those larvae which survive form a rudimentary shell within a week. The tiny abalone are encouraged to cling on to fake "rocks" - actually plastic sheets - in outdoor tanks filled with seawater pumped from the sea nearby.

They are fed on algae until they are large enough to "graze" on large strands of seaweed. An adult abalone can raise itself up into a "sitting" position and chomp happily on seaweed, like a rabbit eating a carrot.

Once the abalone are large enough, they are transferred to cages placed in the sea to grow to a marketable size (from about three inches long).

There are already several, successful abalone farms in the west of Ireland but none on this scale and none using M. Huchette's advanced Australian rules.

In theory, none of M. Huchette's abalone are ready to eat until the end of 2006. Has he taken a sneak preview? He looks, for a moment, like a child caught with his hand in the biscuit jar.

"Well, actually," he says. "I ate a few the other day." Did he, like Lewis Carroll's oyster-loving Walrus and Carpenter, take the little abalone by the hand before sorting out the ones of greatest size? Did he weep to eat his own children?

"No, of course not. Not at all. I am French," he boomed. "I adore food of all kinds and I especially appreciate gourmet foods. Farming and then eating the creatures that I rear is no problem at all for me. And I can tell you that the abalone I ate were ... absolutely wonderful."

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