Article as appeared on IOL 11 March 2011

Article as appeared on

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March 7 2011 at 08:18pm
By MELANIE PETERS

Cape Town – In the 1980s vet Pierre Hugo tried to breed and rear abalone in a spare room of his home. His sons fetched buckets of sea water from the ocean every day to refill the tanks. They even experimented with the molluscs’ diet, feeding them lettuce, cabbage, cereal and potatoes.

Hugo’s pilot hatchery was started in 1991. Since then his vision of farming abalone in response to the depleting stocks in the ocean has turned into three successful farms, with a fourth farm, the size of the other three combined, on the cards.

Based in Hermanus harbour, Abagold has carved a lucrative niche and is an international competitor in hatching, rearing, processing and exporting of local abalone.

Last week a local private equity firm’s environmental and new energy technology fund announced an investment of R52.5 million in the new farm.

The investment from Inspired Evolution’s R700 million equity fund, Evolution One, is geared towards helping protect a species in danger of depletion from poaching.

Once shucked from its hard shell, abalone, which has a soft but chewy flesh, is eaten in a variety of ways, but mostly steamed, grilled or, for the more adventurous, as a sushi dish.

Abagold produces abalone, the world's most desirable seafood, in close harmony with nature at the most southern tip of Africa. The pristine cool water of the Atlantic Ocean provides all the necessary nutrients for the cultivation of the highest quality abalone. We export our canned and dried abalone all over the world and build lasting relationships with our loyal clients. Picture Mxolisi madela

Abagold produces abalone, the world's most desirable seafood, in close harmony with nature at the most southern tip of Africa. The pristine cool water of the Atlantic Ocean provides all the necessary nutrients for the cultivation of the highest quality abalone. We export our canned and dried abalone all over the world and build lasting relationships with our loyal clients. Picture Mxolisi madela

Abagold managing director Christo du Plessis said he believed the farm was making a dent in the fight against poaching. “We are providing a product in the market that could have been poached.”

Using the analogy of hunters and farmers, he said poachers, whose costs were far less, went out and got their catch regardless of the consequences – whereas a farm like this was labour-intensive, and a round-the-clock operation.

The three farms produce 278 tons of the 1 000 tons of abalone the country’s abalone farming sector produces. The new farm will increase this by 200 tons. Most of this prized seafood delicacy – dried, live, canned and frozen – was exported to China and Japan. They currently employ 280 people and the new seven-hectare farm, Sulamanzi, will create a further 200 jobs.

On a tour of the farms operations manager Stoffel van Dyk was at great pains to explain the strict bio-security. “Abalone are very sensitive. This is intensive farming and there is no room for mistakes. All the employees look after the abalone as if they were their own children. This involves the husbandry – breeding, feeding, health and cleaning. There are no second chances. Once they are unhappy that’s it. The key element is consistency.”

He said there were 28 000 baskets, with the details on a tag, and the number of abalone varied from 100 to 1 500 in each basket. “All the abalone which are the same age stay together. When they are moved to the next block they are anaesthetised to keep them happy.”

Different employees took care of the different age groups. They spent seven months in the hatchery and nursery and were then moved to the farms where they stayed until they were five years old and 200 grams in weight – then they were shucked. He said the new farm would also have seaweed tanks so the water from the abalone tanks could be filtered of all the waste and reused before it went back into the ocean. This would increase their green footprint.

Many of the staff have been on the farms since the start. Janodien Swartz from Franschhoek has worked there for seven years. He has three children. He said with the depletion of stocks in sea “the work being done here is very important. This company creates jobs. There are many people who don’t have work. It is also important that opportunities are provided for the next generation. “Our work is environmentally friendly. We don’t use chemicals, ensuring that the water that returns to the sea is clean.”

Thobeka Mgwedane has been employed on the farm for 13 years. “I got a job here after school and I have received a lot of training and now I am a section manager.” It was important to protect abalone as it was an indicator species. The company was also investigating more renewable energy and environmental approaches.

Du Plessis said they planned to build a turbine that would be powered by the effluent from the farms that was pumped into the sea.

They were also in talks with the Overstrand municipality to help provide desalinated water to the town. “We have the existing pumps and technology which will decrease the spending on such infrastructure required for the job.”