Second-generation farmer fights to rescue Gongliao’s abalone industry

New Taipei’s Gongliao District was once famed for an edible sea snail known as the variously colored abalone. This region was once No. 1 in the world by export volume, but due to a debilitating virus and Chinese competition, those glory days are long gone. Today, we go to Gongliao, to meet an abalone farmer fighting to keep his hometown industry alive. He’s found ways to rebrand his product, and now even offers interactive tours of his fishery. Our Sunday special report.
It’s a perfect Saturday morning in New Taipei’s Gongliao District. Dozens of parents and kids approach, excited to be fishermen for a day.
Forty-six-year-old Lee Sheng-hsing starts by introducing the facility. His somewhat clumsy delivery gives away that he’s not a professional tour guide, but a farmer of an aquatic species known as the variously colored abalone. In recent years, frozen abalone from China has flooded Taiwan, crowding the local market. That motivated Lee to change things up at his fishery, which began offering guided tours to visitors.
Lee Sheng-hsing
Variously colored abalone farmer
Right, come over, and I’ll tell you the easiest way to tell them apart. You can tell them apart by the shell. Other abalones have a wrinkly shell, and these holes stick out more. Variously colored abalones have a smoother shell and the holes are smaller. Variously colored abalones and other abalone species are all part of the same family.
Variously colored abalones are locally known as Gongliao abalones. They don’t like sandy environments, preferring the rocky coast of northeastern Taiwan. Abalones are a family business that Lee inherited from his father. His farm now boasts several square ponds on the intertidal zone. One of the abalones’ favorite foods is gracilaria, a kind of red algae.
Lee Sheng-hsing
Variously colored abalone farmer
This seaweed is called gracilaria. You can find it at most restaurants around here.
But gracilaria is not their only source of nutrients. Kelp is also indispensable. Lee opens up a box and throws 15 kilograms of saccharina japonica into a giant concrete vat.
He turns on the machine to chop it all up and mix it well before it is fed to the abalones.
Feeding is an everyday event at the fishery, but it must be done well. To show visitors the tricks of the trade, he takes them down to the ponds, so they can have a go at feeding the shellfish. This way, the tourists can quickly understand the ins and outs of the industry, to find out that it’s not as simple as it seems.
Voice of Lee Sheng-hsing
Variously colored abalone farmer
Unlike fish, abalones do not swim about to get their food. They can’t. So you have to spray the food evenly. If you don’t reach everywhere, some of the abalones don’t get to eat.
Wu Yi-en
Visitor
Now at least they know what they eat, what they look like, and how they are raised. Before, I just ate them without knowing how they’re raised.
Chiang Hui-yi
Visitor
When we arrived, the kids were really happy. Before, they had only ever seen the variously colored abalone at seafood restaurants. But coming here, they were able to see firsthand how abalones are cultivated, and to get a better understanding on how the fishery ponds work. I’m sure that now they know how to tell the difference between variously colored abalones and other abalones.
Opening up the farm to the public was a bold move for Lee, whose expertise was in shellfish and not giving tours. But these days, he doesn’t shy away from explaining his daily work to visitors. The impetus for this change in him was his love for his traditional industry.
Lee Sheng-hsing
Variously colored abalone farmer
Ever since I was born, my family has farmed variously colored abalone. We were all brought up by this shellfish. It was the main source of income in my family. We’ve been in this business since the ’60s.
Lee’s father and brother are also in the abalone business. Although mollusks have been part of his life since his youth, Lee initially pursued careers in medical care and electronics. It was only afterward that he decided to return to his hometown and continue the family business. In the first few years after his return, he bumped against a major problem: Abalone all around Taiwan were dying en masse. It made his start in the industry a very difficult one indeed.
Lee Sheng-hsing
Variously colored abalone farmer
The rate of survival was so low, it was close to zero. There was a virus that, once it infected one of them, two or three days later, they would all fall. You wouldn’t find a single survivor. We were losing money every year, anywhere from NT$100,000 to the millions.
In those tough days for the industry, Lee’s wife was at his side at all times. Though she supported him, she was at a loss over why he would take over the family business at its nadir.
Peng Chiao-hsien
Lee Sheng-hsing’s wife
I think he was optimistic and I was pessimistic about the future of the industry. I thought there were many uncertainties. For one, we have the weather. We can’t control that. Then there are the prices, which are decided by other people.
Gongliao produces about 200 tons of variously colored abalone every year. Ninety percent of that is sold to distributors, and only about 10% is sold to clients directly by the fisheries themselves. In 2011, China started selling more than 1,000 tons of frozen abalone to Taiwan. At the time, the farms in Gongliao were still recovering from the debilitating virus. They were unable to boost output, and were gradually replaced by imported shellfish.
Lee Sheng-hsing
Variously colored abalone farmer
The biggest problem we faced was that variously colored abalone had disappeared from the market for a while. So we had to go back and find consumers. Our product had been slowly replaced by imported abalone. Finding customers after being replaced wasn’t easy. We were putting a lot of hard work into our farm, but we were unable to sell anything at a good price, or even at a loss.
Amid bleak prospects for the industry, Lee was on the verge of calling it quits. But then, he had a realization. Gongliao’s shellfish would not be able to compete against Chinese imports in quantity or price. But there was one way in which the local produce could compete: on quality.
Freshly caught abalones are set straight on the grill and torched to perfection, without any seasoning. Visitors can get the most authentic taste of local variously colored abalone. It’s a world apart from the frozen stuff.
Lee Sheng-hsing
Variously colored abalone farmer
Our hope is that, by showing people how shellfish are born, how they are raised and how to enjoy them, we can get consumers to better understand the product. Having them come here and experience the environment for themselves – if they find it good, and fresh and clean, that’s all added value.
Chang Wang-chi
Visitor
The texture is completely different from the frozen ones. You bite down and it’s feels springy. The frozen ones are all mushy, they have no bite. It’s all soft. When you bite down on these fresh ones, they have a certain firmness to them.
Although tourist sales are only a drop in the bucket compared to sales to distributors, this avenue creates a special connection between farmers and consumers. Building up a premium brand means commanding a higher price and competing in a whole other ballpark than that of cheap imports.
Lee Sheng-hsing
Variously colored abalone farmer
There was the epidemic in the 2000s, and then we were able to slowly recover starting from 2012 and 2013. We were gradually successful in breeding the abalone. But in this industry, we are like a newborn baby. We need the government to pay attention to us, and offer some help and guidance. We need their protection to be able to grow.
This fishery in Gongliao has a long road ahead before it cements its place in the market.
At its prime, these high-density ponds at Lee’s fishery could produce 500 to 600 catties of abalone every year. But today, they sit abandoned. Lee plans to put them back to use again and raise Pacific white shrimp, to create an income outside of abalone season.
Lee Sheng-hsing
Variously colored abalone farmer
It takes less time to raise shrimp. With the climate here, it takes about four to five months for them to reach maturity. So if we start in April, we can have a harvest in August or September.
Peng Chiao-hsien
Lee Sheng-hsing’s wife
I really feel for him. I really do. He’s hair has turned so white these past few years. He doesn’t tell me he’s tired, because he thinks that it was his decision to come back.
Lee Sheng-hsing
Variously colored abalone farmer
I feel inseparable from this place. Ever since I matured as a person, I have wanted to live here. My father was also born here. We really have a deep emotional bond with this place.
Reluctant to leave his hometown, Lee plans to continue on despite the challenges. Even as the industry faces an aging population and a downturn in fortunes, he will continue to toil, as he strives to achieve a breakthrough.
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