Each year close to 400 tonnes of wild and farmed abalone is supplied to local and international markets from the south-west.
The marine snail is farmed on land or collected by experienced divers from depths up to 30 metres. In Port Fairy, Mark Gervis is the general manager of one of the first abalone farms built in Australia.
Southern Ocean Mariculture (SOM) started construction in April 1996 and has recently expanded to produce 110 tonnes of abalone per year.
The farm breeds a hybrid of greenlip and blacklip abalone, with 75 per cent exported, mainly to Asia, and the remaining 25 per cent sent to Sydney as a live product.
Mr Gervis said the abalone, which is either canned or vacuum packed, was primarily used in festival celebrations, such as the Chinese New Year and the Autumn Moon Festival.
“It is either gifted to people and is largely seen in culinary specialities such as treasure pots, where it is mixed with other special seafoods such as the sea cucumber, scallops, mushrooms and chicken,” he said.
At SOM, the abalone is bred on site and grown for up to three-and-a-half years. Mr Gervis said the animal is spawned and then allowed to develop for a week before being placed in nursery tanks and left to grow for about six months.
“They start off as a 180 micron egg and we grow them to about 10 millimeters in this time,” Mr Gervis said.
"From that point they are graded into weaning tanks and grown for another year until they are between 40 and 60 mm.
Then we grade them again into the grow out stage - the last stage before they go to market." SOM is one of two abalone farms in the region.
About 50 kilometres down the Princes Highway at Narrawong is one of four farms owned by Yumbah Aquaculture - one of the largest abalone producers in the world. The business sells 700 tonnes of abalone annually, worth $29 million.
Under water, there are five divers who harvest wild abalone in the western zone, which starts at the Victoria/South Australia border and finishes at the mouth of the Hopkins River.
Western Abalone Divers Association (WADA) chairman Craig Fox said the total economic value across the whole wild harvest was about $150 million.
"In each state that flows back through the processors and into local communities such as Port Fairy, Portland and Warrnambool," he said.
In 2006 a toxic virus took the western zone’s harvest from 280 tonnes per year to zero. Mr Fox said the biomass had slowly been re-built, with divers now harvesting 70 tonnes per year.
He said the western zone had voluntarily implemented and funded an on-board data logging system that was analysed by scientists to allow the industry to determine the real-time stock situation.
Moving from the land to the ocean floor
Abalone divers and farmers are looking at working collaboratively in an industry first for Victoria.
Western Abalone Divers Association (WADA) chairman Craig Fox said there had been early discussions about collaborative stock enhancement, where abalone would be grown on land before being placed back into the ocean.
"We've been discussing how wild harvest could work with aquaculture in order to restock or enhance the biomass of the wild resource," he said.
"We've acknowledged that the best way to do that is to work with Southern Ocean Mariculture and look at having juvenile abalone grown at the farm to a 30 or 40 mm size, before being placed on the natural reef for grow out."
Southern Ocean Mariculture (SOM) general manager Mark Gervis said the collaborative approach was seen throughout Western Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
"There are various parts of the world where it has been done and the techniques are definitely getting better," he said.
"It's really a question of what size and the method of stocking them back onto the reef to ensure that you are not just feeding the fish.”
Mr Fox and Mr Gervis will meet with the Abalone Council of Australia and the Australian Abalone Growers Association in November.
"This will be the first time that we've actually all come together," Mr Gervis said.
"It really is a big step forward to join together and be more collaborative, to co-exist and break down any barriers that are currently there and be more collaborative for the benefit of all.”
In another project, SOM is exploring how waste abalone product can be transformed into a nutraceutical – a medicinally or nutritionally functional food. The research is funded through a Food Source Victoria grant.
$73 million abalone plan
A proposed $73 million abalone farm near Portland could double the nation’s abalone output and inject more than $50 million into the region’s economy.
Yumbah Aquaculture, the operator of the Narrawong abalone farm, wants to construct a 1000-tonne farm at Dutton Way, Bolwarra.
Yumbah Nyamat would be located on a 63-hectare site north-west of the Henty Bay Beachfront Holiday Park
Yumbah general manger Tim Rudge said the farm would create up to 330 jobs, including 170 during construction and 160 permanent post-construction roles in management, biology, farm labour, maintenance and food science. He said the proposal also included a new seafood processing facility and abalone-feed production plant, which would be established in a nearby Portland industrial estate, to support the existing farm in Narrawong.
Mr Rudge said if the proposal was to proceed, it would help its growing client base move into China – the biggest abalone market in the world.
“Yumbah has clients who have asked us to grow with them as they undertake massive expansions into China,” he said. “That is a huge confidence boost for the industry, and while we haven’t taken this decision lightly, we have decided that we will build in order to support and grow with our clients.”
Mr Rudge said a number of potential sites were put forward but Portland “stacked up as the best.”
“The Dutton Way site has access to deep water and is on a large block of land that is available, is zoned correctly and is located closer to town, meaning it is great for sourcing staff,” he said.
“The land is also cleared, so there is no need to go to a remote site and destroy native vegetation. We feel much more comfortable about developing on a piece of land that has already been cleared and previously used for agricultural food production.”
But local residents have voiced their concerns about the proposal.
Portland’s Lesley Yuill said she was building a house that would overlook the farm.
“We are totally behind Yumbah bringing industry to the town and jobs to the people, but this site will come at the expense of those who live here for the peace and quiet and beauty,” she said.
“This is a pristine slice of heaven that would be ruined by a massive plant with disruptive and intense operations.
“Portland is about to be nominated as a breeding place for whales. With this plant, the whales will leave and they’re not going to come back. Portland is really starting to boom as a tourist location and without the whales, our tourism will be affected.”