Abalone farming: David Connell of Yumbah Aquaculture finds his sea legs

First appeared on The Weekly Times online, 16 August 2017 – Click here to read the full article.


Out of his shell: David Connell of Yumbah Aquaculture, which produces abalone on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Photo: Kelly Barnes
WHEN David Connell started working in abalone aquaculture two decades ago, the industry was in its infancy and he had a long career in beef and lamb export.

“It was because of my background in livestock that I was brought into the abalone industry, to find markets to export their product,” said the 49-year-old.

“Even though it’s a marine product, it’s still a land-based commodity.”

So it’s a testament to abalone’s success that David is now an operations manager of Yumbah Aquaculture, the largest producer and exporter of the product in Australia.

Formerly called South Seas Abalone, Yumbah was last year rebranded after the privately-listed company — with multiple family investors — consolidated its four farms, which now in total sell 700 tonnes of abalone (or seven million shells) annually, worth $29 million.

Those four farms include hatcheries and grow out tanks at South Australia’s Port Lincoln (about 10 million/year) and Kangaroo Island (about three million/year); as well as Bich­eno in Tasmania (two million/year), and Narrawong (near Portland in Victoria), the only site not to have a hatchery, which grows out an estimated five million/year.

The four sites grow out 15 million abalone annually, with juvenile sales, mortality and culling for slow growers dropping the total sales figure to seven million shells.

Abalone — mainly greenlip but with some tiger — take three to four years to grow out to the 100g-120g.

SHIP SHAPE

ABOUT 90 per cent of product is exported, with Japan the largest market, followed by the US, Canada and then a variety of Asian nations and the EU.

In Australia, Yumbah sells to Costco and the wholesale markets, through the marketing arm Ausab.

Abalone is sold frozen, in shell, with a small amount canned, sold individually, and also a small live market to Sydney and Melbourne restaurants.

Yumbah has also created a product, aballini, frozen cocktail-size shellfish, while a small amount of juveniles are sold to other growers.

Last year’s company rebranding also saw the creation of a number of adjoining ent­ities.

Yumbah Processing saw the lease of a factory at Wingfield in South Australia where processing, packaging and distribution of snap-frozen abalone occurs.

Yumbah Aquafeeds was also established after the company bought EP Aquafeeds, now producing 115 tonnes of abalone feed a month — a wheat, soy, vitamin and mineral mix — supplied to their own sites, as well as other abalone farms in Western Australia and Victoria.

And finally in January this year Yumbah Hatchery was opened at Port Lincoln, which supplies oysters to South Australian growers.

“Yumbah could possibly go into oyster production, but for now our main business is foc­using on abalone,” David said.

“For us the oyster hatchery is a niche which is an alternative to Tasmania’s oyster hatchery which recently suffered collapse following POMS (Pacific oyster mortality syndrome) disease.

“Oysters take much longer than abalone to grow out.”

TAKING STOCK

WHILE David’s background was in livestock, initially as a butcher, he said there were large similarities to aquaculture and with family working in the oyster industry, it wasn’t a steep learning curve when he started with Kangaroo Island Abalone 21 years ago.

“It wasn’t a matter of playing catch up, it was about starting from scratch as the industry in Australia had only started in the mid-’90s.”

David said Yumbah Aquaculture’s predecessor South Seas initially saw Port Lincoln amalgamate with Narrawong in 2007, with other farms joining in following years up to 2010. He said the diversification of farms across three states helped reduce risk, particularly from disease and climate.

“South Australia’s water is warmer so abalone grow faster than Tasmania, but a really hot summer can see mortality higher in South Australia,” he said.

“And having farms spread across the country reduces the risk of a virus, for instance, impacting the whole business.”

Between October and Dec­ember each year about 200 brood stock are selected for breeding, separated into a sterile environment that mimics the natural system of warm water currents, to trigger spawning.

Fertilised eggs are then moved to a hatching tank, going through seven stages of metamorphosis before being moved to outdoor nursery tanks.

With a 30 per cent hatchery survival rate (compared to 1 per cent in the wild), this process can be repeated about 10 times.

At the Kangaroo Island site they pump 2000 litres of seawater into tanks per second, to supply nutrients. But algae and seawater nutrients alone are not sufficient, so they are fed Yumbah Aquafeeds pellets — which have no antibiotics or chemical additives. The food conversion rate is 1.3-1.5kg per 1kg of abalone produced, “which is one of the best protein conversion rates for any creature.”

MEATY BITES

ABALONE meat is tested to confirm no antibiotic, biotoxin or chemical residue, while seawater is tested quarterly for the EPA.

“Abalone growing system is a bit like a filter and it’s not uncommon for us to return water cleaner than we suck it in,” David said.

After six months, the juveniles are moved to grow out tanks and both at age one and two are moved again as they need further room for growth.

Once they reach 100-120g, at about three to four years of age, they are harvested and placed straight into freezers.

David said while Yumbah was now the leading producer and exporter of abalone in Australia, its future was uncertain with plans to build a deep sea port on Kangaroo Island right next to his farm, in order to ship woodchip to Asia to be made into paper and disposable nappies.

In recent months he has been hosting a stream of politicians, including Premier Jay Weatherill, before the development plans go to an environmental impact assessment.

“It will kill this farm,” he said.

“There will be 77,000 tonne ships 300m from our door and we rely on pristine water. The abalone industry came from a government initiative to take pressure off the native species. It’s pioneering and revered around the world, with a clean-green reputation. It should be protected.”