Global warming brings new cash crop for fishermen
Struggling industry finds a lifeline in the West Country as rising water temperatures allow valuable shellfish to thrive
Paul Brown and Tony Sutton
10th December 2002
Global warming has brought an unexpected benefit to West Country fishermen struggling to make a living as traditional catches dwindle.
A slight rise in sea temperature has meant that valuable shellfish once unable to thrive north of the Channel Islands can be farmed for export.
Disc-like molluscs Haliotis, meaning sea ear, which grow 20cm (7in) long, fetch £125 a kilogram on the Japanese and Californian markets.
These delicacies are known as abalone in most of the world but as ormers in Britain. Abalone are best known by tourists as the source of iridescent mother of pearl jewellery and are used as inlay in the far east, but are also a highly prized seafood.
In Japan the gonads are a particular delicacy eaten raw, but in California the abalone are turned into steaks. The people of Guernsey (see recipe) have traditionally eaten ormer stew.
The ormers can be gathered at low tide using ormer hooks to prise them off the rocks, but harvesting them in the wild is strictly controlled.
There are several types of abalone. Trials conducted this year by south-west sea fisheries committees and other interested groups have shown that the Guernsey type green abalone (Haliotis fulgens) can flourish off the coasts of Cornwall, south Devon and perhaps even Dorset. They grow in depths of water of up to 10 metres.
Sample ormers were placed in surface rigs at sites from the Isles of Scilly in the west to Portland in the east. "They went in last November at around 15ml. They are now three times that size at 40ml," said Andrew FitzGerald, the technical coordinator for the project, which is being run by the Cornwall sea fisheries committee.
"There are two markets, you either go for the cocktail size - between 35 and 45ml, which we have now got," he said.
"If you want to go for the full steak size - 70 to 80ml - you are looking at waiting for another year and a half of growth," he said.
The TV chef Rick Stein loves abalone and wants a weekly supply for his restaurants.
With more cutbacks expected in fishing next week when the EU sets next year's quotas, the industry is taking a close look at alternative sources of income, such as fish farming. The fisheries committee believes that, unlike salmon farming, ormer production is unlikely to cause environmental problems.
Ormers graze on seaweed and do not pollute the water. And unlike bivalves such as mussels, oysters and scallops, they are not at risk from pollutants. They do not concentrate toxins in their flesh, which can make some of the other shellfish inedible.
The one weak point is temperature. They cannot flourish below 8C (36F) but with gradually warming seas around Britain due to global warming, the West Country is now a suitable habitat.
A meeting later this week of about a dozen would-be ormer farmers is expected to set up a cooperative to help to promote this new industry and provide a permanent hatchery to supply baby ormers - the seed - to farmers.
Mr FitzGerald has spent the past five years studying ormers and is convinced a big aquaculture could be estab lished. He set up a temporary hatchery in his conservatory and back garden in Plymouth last year.
"With a cooperative we will be able to support people," he said.
"No one is interested in seeing anyone fail. It could be that we will see a push from fishing to fish farming."
Fishing for abalone is now restricted or banned in many parts of the world because of overfishing.
In Tasmania, which harvests about 2,500 tonnes of abalone a year, fishing for the mollusc is on a quota system.
On the west coast of North America abalone populations have declined steeply and many areas are now closed to commercial fishing.
In South Africa commercial fishing has been restricted by quota since 1970 and last year only 370 tonnes were harvested.
The two biggest consumers of abalone are Japan, which consumes about 50 tonnes a day, and China, which takes it canned.