by David Thompson
Michael Buchal pulls back the shade screen covering a fiberglass tank, plunges his arm into chilly sea water and fishes out a reddish-brown representative of Hawaii’s unlikely new agricultural export—abalone.
photos Wayne Levin
"This one weighs about 100 grams," says Buchal, the earnest young president of the Big Island Abalone Corporation. "It’s the ideal sushi size. It cuts up perfectly into four servings."
Abalone, with its rich, delicate flavor, is a shellfish prized around the world, and the one glistening in the palm of Buchal’s hand could wind up on a plate in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle or Honolulu. But odds are that it will catch a flight to Japan, since Big Island Abalone ships ninety-one percent of its shellfish there. BIAC, which only began marketing the mollusks in 2001, has rapidly become the largest abalone producer in the United States. In 2003, it harvested about seventy tons of the gastropod, generated more than $2 million in sales and earned itself the title of Hawaii Exporter of the Year. The company’s long-term goal is to produce 1,000 tons annually. "We want to make Hawaii the abalone capital of the world," says Buchal.
But how can a cold water-loving creature not naturally found in the tropics thrive on the blistering Kona Coast, of all places? The key lies in the constant supply of nutrient-rich, forty-five-degree ocean water that’s pumped from 3,000 feet down and put on tap for the tenants of the Ocean Science and Technology Park at Kea¯hole Point, where Big Island Abalone’s ten-acre farm is located. So far, one acre of the farm is covered with quiet, shaded tanks where 1.5 million abalone spend from two to three years growing to market size in the cold, pure water. Another three acres hold long, bubbling tanks where the company grows the red macro algae that the abalone eat. In fact, this is the only abalone farm in the world where the mollusks and their feed are grown side by side. "At Keahole, we have more sunlight than any coastal site in the United States," Buchal says, "so if you’re growing algae, this is a good place to do it."
The aquaculture operation itself isn’t open to the public, but on the Big Island you can find its abalone on menus at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, the Hapuna Prince Beach Hotel and the Hilton Waikoloa Village. A handful of places in Honolulu serve it regularly, including the Halekulani hotel and Yanagi Sushi on Kapiolani Boulevard. You can also find the BIAC on the web at bigislandabalone.com