Savor this sweet and succulent locally grown seafood indulgence

It’s hard to imagine the potential in a life form so tiny your eyeball can barely register its existence. Hard to imagine the sweet succulence to come once this little bitty algae-eating thing reaches maturity.

Big island Abalone Corp. kept the faith through a decade of research and development. about 18 months ago, the Kona company began sales to the public. The result: 41 tons of abalone sold, live and in their shells, mostly to Japan. a good portion – about 25 percent – stays in Hawaii, where chefs are adding fresh, local abalone to their menus.

Lyndsey DeSilva, plant manager and vice president of Big island abalone, says the premium shellfish begins its life cycle as larvae, born right there at the company site, located in the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii authority ocean science park, just south of the Kona airport.

The Abalone – a Japanese variety called Ezo – thrive in deep ocean water piped up from offshore, mixed with surface water to strike a temperature of about 62 degrees. “The biggest thing that we have is very, very clean water,” DeSilva says. “Pretty much everything we’re dealing with is very pristine.”

In their first week, the larvae attach to a fiberglass substrate and start forming their shells. in the wild, they’d attach to rocks, or “whatever they landed on,” DeSilva says. They’re fed a natural microalgae that comes in with the ocean water and grows off sunlight. During a six-month stay in the nursery they progress to eating larger algae, then cold-water kelp brought in from West Coast waters.

Once they’ve reached about 3 millimeters in size, they’re transferred to grow-out tanks, where they’re fed and monitored for two years, until they reach market size of 80 grams, 2 to 3.5 inches long, DeSilva says. “We call it an M, for medium.”

The abalone-growing technology originated at Oregon State University, with research conducted at the Kona site starting in 1997 by scientists from the school. The process enables Big island abalone to operate as a sustainable aquaculture farm. “There’s no antibiotics, nothing unnatural,” DeSilva says. “We don’t really do anything different than there would be in the wild.”

As far as waste goes, some algae goes down the drain, but much of it is dried and sold to local coffee farmers, who use it as mulch. The abalone’s biodegradable waste is filtered out, but the company is looking into recycling it into the algae-growing tanks.

The clean growing conditions and controlled feeding differentiate Big island abalone from what you’d pick off a rock, if you could get to one at 100-foot depths offshore of northern Japan. “The taste is basically derived from what they’re eating, so it’s quite a bit different from the wild abalone, just because they’re fed premium food all the time,” DeSilva says.

Hiroshi Fukui, chef at Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas in restaurant row, was quick to add Big island abalone to his menu. “it’s very tender and tasty, excellent,” Fukui says.

He uses the product several ways: as poke, as tempura and cooked sous vide, a low-heat method in which the seafood is cooked in a sealed bag. His sous vide abalone is served with butter and lemon juice or glazed with sweet miso, then dressed with kabayaki sauce and beurre blanc.

Before Big island abalone became available, he used California red aba-lone, which was nowhere near as succulent. “We had to pound it out, then sauté it,” Fukui says. “it would be tough without pounding.”

DeSilva says the reaction she gets from many local people when she introduces them to the product is surprise. “They’re surprised that it’s grown here,” she says. “So many people used to buy it at crack seed stores, dried, and it seemed to just fade away, so a lot of people are excited to see it back.”

Big island abalone is available through the Web site, bigislandabalone.com. it can be shipped anywhere in Hawaii, the U.S. mainland or Japan. Prices run from $9 to $29 per pound live in the shell, depending on size. Cooked, shelled abalone sells for $18 for 1.5 ounces, about two pieces.