Inside one of the state’s last commercial operations for shiny mollusks.

An assortment of live abalone at American Abalone Farms in Davenport. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Tom Ebert has always had one foot in the sea and one on land.

He’s ocean-bound by his love for abalone, a passion born decades ago in an aquaculture lab his father ran off the coast of Carmel. He watched his father, who worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife for 32 years, study invertebrates like abalone, crab, oysters and shrimp.

By 17 years old, Ebert was spawning abalone. He wrote his master’s thesis on planting farmed abalone in the wild to increase their ability to survive. He spent many years below sea level, diving for abalone in Northern California.

Tom Ebert, former owner and current general manager of American Abalone Farms , pictured on the beach just outside of his office in Davenport. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Since 1992, Ebert has lovingly raised 1 million California red abalone from egg to market on an oceanfront farm in Davenport, fueled by a deep commitment to sustainability and the sea snails themselves, which are dwindling in the natural ecosystem.

“I always had a close connection with abalones,” he said.

Ebert, 58, started American Abalone Farms while he was running a marine lab at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He took over what had been a steelhead salmon farm, originally the only place in California that was permitted to do ocean ranching, Ebert said. Crucially, the Davenport fish farm came with the permits he needed to open his own operation.

Still, it took two years and $50,000 to open the abalone farm — time and cost that he assumes has only grown astronomically since then and creates a barrier to more people getting into the industry. There are only four abalone farms in California, including his.

Ebert has witnessed the rise and fall of abalone, from the heyday of the commercial fishery in the 1950s and 1960s, through the mid-1970s when “people saw the writing on the wall.” Overfishing and a hungry, growing sea otter population contributed to abalone’s steady decline, he said. His dad would recount stories of fishermen and environmentalists almost coming to blows during arguments over the impact of the sea otters.

By 1997, California’s commercial abalone fishery closed completely.

Clockwise from top: Sea water is pumped into the farm at 2,000 gallons per minute to fill a 60,000 gallon pool, and the water is then run through various pumps to circulate throughout abalone tanks; a warning sign above tanks holding Dungeness crab; the abalone nursery. (Images by Charles Russo & Courtesy of American Abalone Farms)

The wild abalone population continues to be in danger. In December, the state announced a two-year ban on recreational diving to allow the population to recover after several difficult years. An explosion of purple sea urchin and rising ocean temperatures have devastated kelp forests, cutting off the abalone’s primary food source.

As aquaculture has caught on, people have turned to farmed abalone as a more sustainable option. Now, more than 95 percent of abalone comes from aquaculture, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

On a parallel track, public consciousness of environmentalism and food sourcing started moving from the fringes into the mainstream, Ebert said. He saw more and more people wanting to know where their seafood came from and how it was raised or caught.

“Fifteen years ago, nobody cared,” he said. “Nobody asked.”

The weekend fish market at American Abalone Farms, clockwise from top left: Dungeness crab; freshly-cracked sea urchin; Steamboat oysters topped with a mix of tobiko, green onion and ponzu; the converted building that houses the farm’s seafood market; a variety of utensils for serving fresh seafood; customers dine outside on weekends. (Images courtesy of American Abalone Farms)

For years, Ebert sold primarily wholesale and to a smattering of restaurants who were willing to pay for and process the expensive mollusks. But as the sustainable seafood movement spread, he seized on the growing opportunity. He pushed retail sales and opened his farm up on weekends so people could come buy live abalone and, eventually, pre-pounded steaks (people wanted to eat the mollusks but had no idea how to remove and process the meat, he said).

Selling to the public started as a word-of-mouth operation with no signage but is now a major emphasis of Ebert’s. Last summer, he converted an old building on the property into a seafood market that now offers oysters, sea urchin, Dungeness crab and other fresh fish in addition to abalone. He built an outdoor patio so visitors can slurp oysters at tables just steps away from the ocean.

American Abalone Farms is a fine-tuned, boot-strap operation. Abalone grow in used drum barrels Ebert bought for cheap on eBay and Craigslist. A pump sucks 2,000 gallons of sea water per minute into a basement and then circulates through pumps to tanks of the abalone. The basement also houses Ebert’s lab, where he spawns abalone four times a year.

Raising mollusks: (clockwise from top left) the nursery at American Abalone Farms makes use of large drum bins to develop the creatures; a closeup view of baby abalone; as nocturnal creatures, the larger abalone are raised in the dark; a farm employee harvests abalone with a headlamp in the dark. (Photos by Charles Russo and Elena Kadvany)

The process is a long one. It takes about three years for the farmed red abalone to grow to market size, about 3 to 3.5 inches — fast-growing compared to wild abalone that can take as long as 20 years to reach legal size, Ebert said.

At American Abalone Farms, heated greenhouses house rows of barrels filled with fresh seawater and abalone at different stages of growth. At four months, they’re nothing more than tiny black specks attached like magnets to the inside of the white barrels. The abalone are fed an all-natural diet of algae and, when they grow their sharp teeth, a dozen varieties of local seaweed.

The colorful hues of an abalone shell. The farm sells many of their left-over shells to jewelry designers, craftspeople and other textile makers. (Images courtesy of American Abalone Farms)

“I call it the ‘Davenport mix’ — my guys walk out on the beach and load up buckets and barrels full of seaweed,” Ebert said. They go through about 20,000 pounds of seaweed every week.

Little known fact: Abalone are nocturnal. At American Abalone Farms, once the sea snails grow to about a quarter-inch, they’re move into dark, enclosed greenhouses where the farm staff wear headlamps to work. Ebert said he’s the only farm in California that raises abalone in the dark, meaning they reach full size 18 months sooner than his competitors’.

Sunset at American Abalone Farms in Davenport. (Image courtesy of American Abalone Farms)

Running an abalone farm for 27 years is not easy, nor is it a cash cow. Ebert’s ultimate goal is to shift away from wholesale entirely and expand into new areas, like the restaurant. He broke with two partners last summer and sold the business to “an individual that shared my vision” and who is now providing funding “to increase the size of the production system and expand into marketing/sales areas such as the restaurant.” (The new owner did not want to be identified.)

Ebert has stayed on as general manager, staking his future and that of his 1 million abalone on a more discerning public that now seems more willing to pay for incredibly fresh, sustainably raised seafood.

The sign out front of American Abalone Farms in Davenport. (Photo by Charles Russo)

American Abalone Farms, 245 Davenport Landing Road, Davenport; market open Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. americanabalone.com

Follow the farm on Instagram: @AmericanAbalone

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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