In a process that has taken years to complete, microscopic abalone larvae have finally grown into fist-sized mollusks that can fetch $30 a pound from top-shelf restaurants and other buyers.
The operation is one of a dozen or so aquafarms along the California coast betting on the culinary comeback of the puck-shaped mollusks that were brought to the brink of extinction by overfishing.
"It's very slow, growing abalone. You spend two or three years of work until you have something large enough to sell," said Matt Steinke, a manager at Carlsbad Aquafarm.
But the wait has its reward.
"It's more or less an endless market," Steinke said.
Abalone production in the United States - most of it in California - roughly doubled from about 254,000 pounds in 1999 to about 522,000 pounds in 2005, the last year Ray Fields, owner of the Central Coast-based Abalone Farm, surveyed the nation's output for the International Abalone Symposium.
The rapid growth came as abalone consumers expanded from a core group of older Californians nostalgic for the days when the delicacy could be gathered by the sack-full along the beach or ordered as steaks or burgers at fish shacks, said H. Roy Gordon, president of the abalone consulting firm Fishtech Inc.
Today's abalone lovers include adventurous, well-heeled diners who are hungry for something different and quintessentially Californian, he said.
"From a flavor standpoint, it's hard not to like it," said Corey Lee, chef de cuisine at the French Laundry in Napa Valley. "We're talking about a sweet, clammy shellfish."
Decades ago, abalone could be found littering beaches at low tide or clinging to rocks in underwater coves. These days, however, most of the nation's abalone grows in sea water-filled tanks amid the hum of pumps and generators.
At Carlsbad Aquafarm, thousands of abalone cling to vertical plastic panels stacked in waist-deep tanks the size of large kiddie pools.
The complex also houses gurgling tubs where workers clean and process oysters, clams and mussels raised in the nearby lagoon. The shellfish sales bankrolled the company's abalone operation as the mollusks reached marketable size, Steinke said.
Farther north along the coast, Monterey Abalone Co. grows the mollusks in cages suspended from a municipal wharf into Monterey Bay. The company hopes to add as many as 70 new cages next year to the roughly 200 it currently uses, co-owner Trevor Fay said.