How to Sex an Abalone: A Sea Snail's Story

3. Stick the thumb of your free hand between the far side of the abalone's shell and its "foot." It's that black wiggly thing.

We are not the only animals that find abalone so tasty. As plankton, they're gobbled up by any number of unimpressive predators—muscles, barnacles, and a many-tentacled worm-like creature called a terribilis that is the Kobayashi of abalone eating, and can take down 10,000 abalone larvae in an afternoon. Beede and his colleagues discovered the terribilis's eating habits the hard way. After figuring out how to spawn abalone in a lab, they let hundreds of thousands of baby abs free in the wild ... and watched them get got by every predator on the food chain. At this point Beede and company reconsidered their tactics and took the fight back to tanks, where we're more in control of things.

4. The upside-down abalone, in an attempt to right itself, will begin crawling toward your wrist. Do not freak out: It's a snail, so the worst it can do is slime you. Besides, you need to pay attention to the underside of the abalone's shell. Focus.

Beede started farming abs in 1978. His operation today is radically different from back then. As he tells it, "We had these big rectangular tanks and the abalone wouldn't grow nearly as well." Now, the abalones are transferred from one tank to another based upon weight, size, and age. But that's not even the half of it. Beede pumps 2,500 gallons of seawater through his farm every minute. The intake is further out and deeper than it used to be, after an El Niño in 1997 when the temperatures rose and killed about 40 percent of his abs. There's also a UV system on the intake that kills 99.9 percent of all the microscopic marine life that comes in. Every few months he dries out his tanks and flushes them with fresh water.

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Ryan Bradley

Beede does all this because of the sabellid worm, which was brought over through the abalone-trade from South Africa and decimated California's farms. In Australia, farmers were not so cautious and the worm got into the wild and wreaked havoc. Beede also keeps cats around to hunt the rats that would eat his abs. The black tarps cover his tanks not because abalones require shade, but because a few years back some crows discovered the place, told their friends, and Beede had himself a situation that would've inspired Hitchcock.

This is all to say that the abalone is sensitive. So attuned is it to environmental conditions, and so easily preyed upon, that it has become a bellwether—its very presence proof of a healthy marine environment. Even the bands on the abalone's shell bear evidence of water conditions, and the abundance of the algae and kelp it feeds upon. Abnormal abalone larvae are proof that something is amiss. All of which brings us back to the importance of sexing.

Beede sells some of his female abs to science, and the profit margins are 25 percent higher than if he were to sell them for meat. Scientists—working on aquariums, or coastlines, even in wetlands—are after the eggs, which are used to ensure water quality. So the species we ate to the brink of extinction, and decorated our necklaces and guitars with, is now getting farmed on land to help keep our seawater less toxic. I don't think the abalone had a choice in any of this, but it still seems awfully noble for a lowly sea snail.

As for the sexing:

5. Look on the far end of the upturned shell: creamy white bands are sperm; blueish bands prove it's female. Now put the abalone back in the water, where it belongs.

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Ryan Bradley is a writer and editor. He lives in New York.

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