Member Highlight: Can the long-lost abalone make a comeback in California?

2019-11-25T15:45:25+00:00 November 25, 2019|

Credit – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.

(From the Los Angeles Times/ By Rosanna Xia) — Hunched over a tank inside the Bodega Marine Laboratory, alongside bubbling vats of seaweed and greenhouses filled with algae, Kristin Aquilino coaxed a baby white abalone onto her hand.

She held out the endangered sea snail—no larger than a bottle cap—like a delicate jewel. After years of fretting over their health, cleaning tanks and filtering the saltwater just right, one tiny oops could undo it all.

“They’re like human hemophiliacs,” Aquilino said, using a plastic ruler to measure the stubborn gastropod as it twisted and squirmed. “Even a small cut, they can bleed to death.”

To the untrained eye, they appear pretty drab. But in this humming lab, home to more white abalone than in the wild, these invertebrates have captured minds and even hearts. They’re the unsung canary in the coal mine—their vanishing numbers sounding the alarm of human greed and the perils we face as the land and oceans burn.

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. Californians held abalone bakes, spun abalone folk tales, sang abalone love songs. They grew large and hardy and fetched extraordinary prices. One diver once said it was like pulling $100 bills from the seafloor.

But we loved them almost to death.

The oft-told story of over-fishing goes something like this: Fishermen organize to defend their livelihoods, environmentalists protest, wildlife officials create rules to keep the population and the trade alive. But in this case, bans came too late, and the abalone fisherman is already a generation gone.

The white abalone—one of seven species along the California coast—once numbered in the millions, but in 2001 it became the first marine invertebrate to be listed as a federal endangered species.

How to save the white abalone has become a scientific puzzle. No one had thought to study them when they were abundant: What do they eat? How often do they reproduce? By the time this information was crucial to their survival, there were few left to study.

Scientists, aquarists, abalone farmers and retired divers have spent years trading notes, searching for wild abalone, and getting them to reproduce. Anchoring the effort is Aquilino’s lab, which breeds them by the thousands in hopes of one day planting them in the ocean where they belong.

Aquilino has bathed and fed and pampered these snails with studious care. She’s known them longer—five years—than her own children, and on this day in August, the mother of abalone was saying goodbye as the team packed them up for their journey into the wild.

If all these years of effort and love do pay off and Aquilino’s abalone thrive, maybe, just maybe, they might even revive a special heritage that also has been dying in California with each passing year.

Aquilino held up the abalone and looked square into its beady-eyed face. “You,” she said, “are the future of your species.”

The story of the abalone begins…

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