Abalone aplenty

Joel Gilby and his team at the Green Hills abalone farm in Stanley hope to produce a bountiful supply of the shellfish in the coming years – a slow but worthwhile process. Picture: Ashleigh Force.

Aquaculture. Within a collection of purpose built tanks on the western side of the Green Hills at Stanley shines a kaleidoscope of colours, a throng of steadily growing abalone.

Just metres from the shore lie hundreds of thousands of the vibrant shellfish and beyond that, a hive of activity.

Established by Rod Crowther in 2002, the abalone farm was recently purchased from Gerry Rehn by Joel Gilby and two business partners.

In a state of disrepair, Joel and his team of five are in the process of turning all of that around.

“The initial stock that came with the farm were underperforming so we destocked, dried everything out and started afresh,” Joel says.

After initially purchasing 800,000 juvenile abalone to get re-started, the farm will now breed their own in the purpose built hatchery, which is a lengthy and intricate process.

Using his knowledge gained through a Bachelor of Science degree at Deakin University in Victoria, Joel must astutely control the environment to induce the abalone to spawn. Each female abalone can release up to two millions eggs.

Before being transferred into the larvae rearing tanks, Joel calculates the amount of sperm required to fertilise the eggs.

Once the eggs hatch, the larvae will remain in the hatchery for a period of five days before they are released into the farm’s nursery tanks where they will settle out and become spat.

Whilst utilising the 21 nursery tanks previously established at the farm, Joel plans to construct new tanks in order to increase capacity along with upgrading the current ones. 

Each nursery tank contains 1100 sheets with approximately 50 to 100 minuscule abalone per sheet, totalling more than one million abalone per nursery tank.

At two weeks old, these tiny fish graze on natural occurring algae called benthic diatoms before moving onto encrusting algae as they grow larger.

“They’ll spend six months in the nursery eating naturally occurring algae before being moved to concrete tanks where they’ll be weaned onto a high protein, cereal based, artificial diet,” Joel says.

A nocturnal species, the abalone will remain in the weaning tanks between six and 12 months until they are 30 millimetres in size and require more space.

By 2018 Joel hopes to have all tanks functioning and employ up to 15 workers to service the improved operations.

He is currently refurbishing larger tanks in order to allow for this increase in biomass.

“The support of the local community has been overwhelming and greatly appreciated in the short time we have been operating and we are hoping to repay this by providing more employment opportunities to the people in the north-west region,” Joel says.

“We plan to start selling in early 2018 at a smaller size into the restaurant trade. So, at approximately 50 grams each.

“The target size in years to come will be much bigger than this though, we are aiming for 80 to 100 grams.”

He plans to sell to buyers in Melbourne and Sydney but says the possibilities are endless, with huge demands from overseas markets.

Working for Rod for a short time in 2007, Joel discovered his passion for the industry.

“That time really gave me the confidence to jump in and buy the farm,” he says.

Previously working at an oyster hatchery in the United Kingdom and a similar abalone farm in Victoria, Joel took the plunge in May this year, purchasing the business with Victorians Tom Peddie and Shane Smith, who have also been heavily involved in farmed abalone since the early 2000s.

“Shane and I had been looking to do this for a while before this opportunity arose,” Joel says.

“For now we’re slowly getting cleaned up, it’s just a process of getting everything up and running. It will be beautiful once we get it all going.”

Until then, Joel and his team face several years without making profits.

“We have 8400 metres of growing surfaces allowing for up to 60 tonne of abalone per annum . . . but it’s a long time without any income.”

However with eight hectares of leased land, Joel is optimistic and determined to see this Stanley abalone farm flourish.

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