Poachers could drive paua to extinction

By John Lichfield

Sylvain Huchette plunges his arm into a large plastic tank and plucks out a shellfish the size of a mobile telephone.

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.

Dr 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 most endangered seafood in the world.

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

The abalone - paua to New Zealanders, ormeau to the French, takabushi to the Japanese - is a delicacy which drives Asian, and especially Chinese, gourmets wild. In Japan and Korea, they are mythical beings, considered to be an unfailing 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 Southeast Asia, and especially among the newly rich in China, that prices have increased 10-fold in the past 20 years. At €30 ($35.40) a kilo wholesale - substantially more than lobster - the abalone is becoming big business.

In Japan, the retail price can rise to €100 a kilo, shells included.

Abalone, eaten cooked or raw, is said to have a haunting and subtle taste and texture, richer than scallops, chewier than octopus. It is one of the indispensable ingredients in a shark's fin soup called "Buddha Jumps over the Wall", which sells at Kai, the exclusive Chinese restaurant in London, at £120 ($210) 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 New Zealand, Australia, Africa, California - and increasingly in France.

The European form of abalone (Haliotis tuberculata) - claimed by some as the most delicious - was ignored for centuries by all but Bretons and the Channel Islanders. In recent years, it has been harvested in great numbers, many poached. The global abalone boom is part of a wider phenomenon. The insatiable Asian appetite for seafood, the scarcity of fish 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 last decade. The Japanese hunger for red tuna has encouraged elaborate methods of quota-busting. Large fish can fetch up to $350,000 on the Japanese market.

Some French and Spanish fishermen catch them 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. 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 with what is happening on the coasts of Africa. Chinese imports from South Africa are 3 times greater than the official national catch.

Korean boats queue up off west Africa to buy tonnes of abalone at relatively low prices from local divers and fishermen.

A renewed outbreak of a mysterious and mortal disease in native abalone 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 the fishery has virtually closed.

Enter Dr Huchette, 31, a young French engineer and marine biologist, who studied abalone in Australia for three years. He came home with a doctorate, an Edna Everage accent and a bright idea for making money and saving the native French "ormeau" or "ormel". Abalone used to be notoriously difficult to farm. They grew slowly and there was a high casualty rate in the young. A few years ago an Australian scientist devised a method for rearing them on elaborate mixtures of algae, reproducing their feeding habits in the wild. Abalone farming in Australia is now booming.

Dr Huchette and his partner have introduced Australian-rules abalone rearing to France. At Plouguerneau, 32km 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.

By the end of next year, Dr Huchette expects to have 15 tonnes 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, Dr Huchette hopes to produce up to 50 tonnes of abalone a year (€1.5 million at current prices). But his real dream is to encourage the creation of dozens of abalone farms along the Breton coast. "The demand for abalone is there and will not go away," said Dr Huchette, who has also worked in China. "For the Chinese, abalone have become a symbol of wealth. 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."

Dr Huchette is also involved in scientific studies on the threats to the French abalone population. "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 happened elsewhere. Overfishing and lack of controls caused the collapse of the stocks in California.

"If we can farm abalone on a large scale, we can create a new industry which will help coastal communities. But we can also reduce the pressure on stocks and help to save wild abalone." In theory, none of Dr 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 said, "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. 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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