Saving the White Abalone is Part of a Much Bigger Story

The current effort to bring back the white abalone is one of numerous projects underway in California to revive the state’s once-thriving marine environment.

If you grew up in Southern California in the 1970s, there were a few things that defined California: surfing, skateboarding, the Eagles (preferably on the radio while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway) and abalone.

The abalone was an iconic totem of beach culture, celebrated in poetry and song, a wondrous gift from mother nature. Almost every house near the coast had upturned abalone shells on the coffee table or as decorative items in a garden, their opalescent mother-of-pearl interior shells glistening jewel-like beneath the warm California sun. They hung near front doors or in backyards by the half dozen from string or fishing line, acting as wind chimes when the cool breezes blew in from the Pacific, tousling the sunbleached hair of surfers and bringing a reassuring cooling to the bare skin, which even today seems such a unique California phenomenon. Our air, our light is different than other places.

As the Los Angeles Times put it in a recent story, “Abalone once were to California what lobster is to Maine and blue crab to Maryland, so plentiful they stacked one on top of another like colorful paving stones.” 

But then something terrible happened. The white abalone fishery went out of control. Commercial abalone fishing from 1969–1972 was so lucrative and so unrestrained that the catch went from roughly 143,000 pounds per year to just 5,000 pounds per year in less than a decade. Millions of pounds were harvested by commercial fishermen, and diving for abalone was a common and favored pastime. In 1997, state officials in California ceased all white abalone fishing because population levels had reached perilous lows. By 2001, the numbers of white abalone found along the coast were so low that they became the first marine invertebrate listed as endangered on the Endangered Species Act. But it was too late. The population had declined by almost 99 percent.

California is home to seven species of abalone (red, pink, black, green, white, pinto, and flat), none of them are plentiful any longer in California waters, but it is the white abalone, in particular, that became the most prized for its tender, flavorful flesh. We loved white abalone. And then they were gone.

White abalone. Credit: NOAA
White abalone. Credit: NOAA

Now, scientists at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Lab in Bodega Bay are in the midst of one of the most important species restoration efforts in the history of the state. On November 18, researchers from the marine lab, in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) carefully released thousands of baby white abalone into the waters of Southern California. Biologists measured and marked each one with a unique numbered tag affixed to their shell to distinguish them from wild white abalone (of which there are perilously few). This marked the first release of endangered white abalone into the wild in coastal waters. What’s crazy is that the white abalone that has been bred in the lab constitute the largest population of the slow-moving mollusks in the world. That’s right, there are more white abalone living in captivity than there are in the wild. Until now.

“Early on we knew that this species was really in danger of going extinct and that the only viable alternative to save it was starting a captive breeding program,” said Ian Taniguchi, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) who has been involved in white abalone restoration since 1992.

The success or failure of the reintroduction program could mean life or extinction for the iconic species, and a great deal of money and years of effort have gone into the recovery program. Over the coming years, divers will visit the sites on a weekly basis to monitor their survival and growth. Every six months, additional releases are planned, with the goal of placing tens of thousands of juvenile white abalone in the sea over the next five years. 

“Early on we knew that this species was really in danger of going extinct and that the only viable alternative to save it was starting a captive breeding program.”

Ian Taniguchi, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW)

Abalone are far more valuable than merely as a food item. They are keepers of the kelp forest. According to scientists, the abalone eat kelp, but they also clear rocks of any dominant species and thus increase kelp diversity so that multiple kelp species can flourish. When the kelp is healthy and diverse, coastal waters see an explosion of diversity in fish and other animals that depend on kelp forest habitat.  

While the success of the abalone recovery program hangs in the balance, its mere existence needs to be recognized as part of a much larger tapestry of species and ecosystem recovery projects currently underway that are aimed at restoring California’s coastal ecosystem to some semblance of what it was centuries ago.

That is, of course, impossible. The numerous written accounts by early California settlers (many of them Spanish) describe plants and animals in such unfathomable abundances, the likes of which we will never be able to return. But we can reclaim some of it. And after decades of witnessing severe declines in fish species, kelp, water quality and coastal habitat, it seems we may be finally turning a corner. Maybe.

Some of the projects underway include bringing back white sea bass, protection of sea lions, whales and dolphins under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a rise in white shark populations, kelp restoration, and, perhaps the most significant achievement of all, the creation of a vast (and enforced), network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Alone, each of these efforts is a small step in the right direction in making our seas healthy and fruitful. Together, they represent the most significant set of achievements to reverse the impact of human settlement on the ocean environment in the history of the world. Of course, we are nowhere near done, and the growing (and terrifying) threats from climate change could render all of this moot. Warming seas, the spread of new diseases (and old ones), acidification, all these things together could unravel these accomplishments in mere decades.

There are still many challenges ahead. Recent kelp die-offs in Northern California due to the explosion in purple urchin populations are extremely worrisome. Phenomena like sea star wasting disease and the marine heatwave of 2013-2015 may have wrought permanent change to our marine ecosystem. But the fact that we are now acting so aggressively to apply science and ingenuity to solve the myriad problems we ourselves caused should give us some hope that positive change is possible.

There is no time for rest. If anything now is the time to redouble our efforts to make our oceans cleaner, to help species recover and to restore the lost balance so that future generations can experience the incredible beauty and bounty of the sea.

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