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The Beating Heart of ASC Certified Abalone Farming in South Korea

Farming with care to protect the marine environment and produce high-quality abalone.

South Korea is well-suited for abalone farming.

With 3,579 islands scattered along the nation’s extensive coastline, there are vast amounts of sheltered bays that are perfect for raising this much sought-after mollusc – known locally as Cham-Jeonbok (English name: Heliotis Discus Hannai).

The first abalone farming facility in the country was established in the 1990s. Since then, South Korea’s domestic production has increased massively. Today, the nation produces around 24,000 tonnes of abalone per year. 

To see what daily life looks like for ASC certified abalone farmers in South Korea, we recently visited Sangbong Kim in Wando County, Jeonnam – the southernmost province in mainland Korea.

Continuing a family legacy

Sangbong Kim is second president of the ASC Abalone Cooperative of Wando (AACW) – a union of 21 farmers that became ASC certified in 2020. Wando is the main production area for over 70% of South Korea’s domestic abalone production.

This community of dedicated abalone producers is spread across the regions of Geumil island, Bogil island, Wando-eup, Cheongsan island and Nohwa island. 

Sangbong started farming in 2008, and now runs Mirari – a mid-to-upper sized farm with 2,000 abalone cages. Situated across several licenced areas in the waters off Nohwa island, Mirari has operations that span the overall cycle of abalone farming – including stocking and grow out, as well as cultivation and harvesting of seaweed for feed.

Abalone farming isn’t just work for Sangbong, it’s a family legacy. It’s in his blood. His father, born and raised on Nowha island, was part of the early wave of abalone farming pioneers in the 1990s. 

Farming with care for high-quality produce

Due to differences in natural environments and farming methods, the quality of abalone produced can vary significantly. Sangbong believes that abalone from the Wando area – and particularly Nowha island – has the best flesh texture.  

He may be biased, but there’s reasoning behind it – Mirari’s sites are positioned in both the inner and outer bays of Nowha island. The water is deep enough (30m), the current flow is good, and there is protection from natural disasters like typhoons and rising water temperature. 

Sangbong takes serious pride in his approach to farming, taking more care than others. It’s not uncommon for some farmers to stock 4,000 young abalone in each cage – Sangbong stocks 1,000. At that quantity, healthy and high-quality abalone can be produced at a good growth rate. 

“I decided to only stock up to 1,000 young abalone in my cages. My diligent farming style produces high-quality abalone.”

Moving to the seasonal rhythms

For Sangbong and his team, operations begin in October every year when they start cultivating the undaria seaweed they use for feed. By December, it’s ready for harvest. 

Overlapping the undaria harvest, in November and December, it’s time to implant the young abalone into their cages – starting their two year grow-out phase. Farmers periodically take boats out to their cages and feed the abalone. 

From the moment of stocking the abalone in cages, it takes an average of two years to grow out before it is ready for harvest and shipping.

Once the undaria harvest is complete and feeding has commenced, they immediately switch their focus to the seedling process for growing kelp – which will be ready between April and June. The efficient supply of seaweed for feed is crucial to strong growth rates. 

Summer is a season of concern for all abalone farmers as most mortalities are caused by high temperatures (starting at about 26°C). The ever-present threat of typhoons throughout summer also poses a serious threat to the farms in the region and their precious abalone stocks.

ASC certification: A milestone moment!

In 2020, AACW achieved a milestone to help secure its future-oriented approach to abalone farming – ASC certification 

It wasn’t an easy journey. Training sessions, consulting costs, and the rigorous certification process tested their resolve. But they persevered, recognising the importance of adapting to changing market demands and environmental concerns, as well as understanding the final retail and consumption stages of the abalone they produce. 

Certification brought with it newfound recognition and opportunities, paving the way for partnerships with leading retailers like Lotte Mart.  

Recently, the demand for certified abalone has been increasing. Never wanting to sit still, Sangbong is eager to take action and spread the word about the potential of certified abalone to encourage more companies to get Chain of Custody (CoC) certification. 

An important year for abalone farming in South Korea

It’s clear that abalone farming is close to Sangbong’s heart. When asked about the industry’s future, he went into depth: 

“Production volume needs to be reduced nationwide. The total domestic production is 24,000 tonnes per year – I think that prices will stabilise if we maintain about 20,000 tonnes. Additionally, the chronic issues of overseas market development and oversupply must be resolved.” 

“Farming density is an important and practical problem. Although it has not been dealt with customarily, an official letter has been issued from the government to reduce it in accordance with regulations and environmental capacity. I think 2024 will be an important milestone in our nation’s abalone farming industry.” 

Discovering the intricate world of abalone farming through the lens of Sangbong Kim’s journey has been truly inspiring. Navigating the seasonal rhythms and challenges of this industry highlights the importance of more sustainable practices and environmental stewardship.  

Sangbong’s ultimate goal is simple: To pass on the legacy of AACW to future generations by taking care of the marine environment, ensuring that abalone farming in the region remains a livelihood for all farmers in the union and is set up to be resilient in the ever-changing tides of time. 

“My goal is to continuously protect the marine environment, which is the most important thing for high-quality abalone farming.”

We would like to extend a massive thank you to both Sangbong Kim and Wando-county manager, Mr. Cho, Heesung for allowing us to visit AACW and tell this story. 

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