Abalone – the white gold that originates from our ocean

Abalone, also known as sea snails, is the world’s most desirable seafood, and the most exquisite of them all is the Haliotis Midae species, which is unique to South Africa’s coastline. Hermanus, one of our very own seaside towns, is also home to Abagold, one of the largest abalone producers on the globe.

Abagold produces about 600 tonnes of abalone per year, which is supplied live, canned or dried and exported all over the world. Plus, they employ no less than 450 people from the Hermanus and Overstrand communities. Looking at their current operations, it’s hard to imagine, but Werner Piek from Ababold says they really do come from very humble beginnings.

In fact, the company was born around 25 years ago in the backyard of a local vet, Dr Pierre Hugo, who experimented with different techniques to cultivate abalone on land. He eventually managed to do this so successfully that he could start producing abalone on a commercial scale, and Abagold gradually expanded to continue meeting the unsatiated market demand.

Apart from making them responsible farmers, cultivating abalone the Abagold way has several other advantages. For one, in nature, abalone only spawns once a year during their natural spawning season, which is September to November. At Abagold, however, they spawn every two weeks, because the process is stimulated artificially.

Spawning is done by releasing sperm and eggs in a water column so that they are fertilised and a larva can hatch. The larva gradually metamorphosises until it turns into a baby abalone. For the first six to nine months, the larva is fed micro algae. Once it becomes a baby abalone, it is transferred to the abalone farm, where it is fed larger types of algae, such as seaweed.

Nurturing a baby abalone to become fully grown and large enough to meet market requirements is a lengthy process that takes four to five years. However, as soon as they are market ready, and subject to their size, abalone can fetch up to R10 000 per kilogram on the market.

This is most likely why they have been labelled “South Africa’s most expensive snails” or “white gold”. Werner says that while abalone has a lot of earning potential, it also takes a lot to get there. As abalone needs light, food and water 24 hours a day, it is a labour- and resource-intensive type of farming.

Abagold, for example, pumps around 10 to 15 million litres of seawater through their system on an hourly basis. This requires reliable alternative sources of energy, such as solar panels, to compensate for loadshedding.

Also, to get started as an abalone farmer, you will need to jump through a league of legal hoops to obtain a permit. This is, of course, very necessary to combat illegal abalone poaching, prevent overfishing, and sustain our living marine resources.

What is perhaps most interesting is that abalone forms part of the aquaculture, or aquafarming, industry, which involves the breeding, raising and harvesting of fish, shellfish and other aquatic creatures or plants. Currently, it is the fastest growing food production sector on the planet, and even though it is in such high demand, abalone forms a relatively small part of it!

If you are ready to tap into the vast earning potential of this highly unique industry, consider following Dr Pierre Hugo and most other niche farmers’ approach: start small to first learn the tricks of the trade before you take big risks. Click here to read more about abalone farming or other marine aquaculture opportunities in South Africa.