Red abalone by Peter Haaker, fisheries biologist California Department of Fish and Game
It’s hard to imagine that at one time abalone were as thick as 70’s shag carpet on the rocky reefs of California. Native American coastal tribes, not having actual 70’s shag carpet, gathered them as a staple of their diet and culture. Excavated shell mounds marked the sites of tribal villages along the coastline. Later, Asian immigrants established major fish camps as they started to dive the local shallows in pursuit of this shelled delicacy which later developed into a major commercial fishery after World War 2. In fact, at the peak of the commercial fishery in the 1960’s, California commercial fishermen were landing 4.6 million pounds annually. This was a true ocean love story. Boy meets ab. Boy harvests and sells ab. People saute and then eat ab. It was an ocean fishery success that no one thought could ever end until it did. Serial depletion and natural phenomenon made an unholy alliance that combined to crash the fishery starting in the 1980’s , shutting it down commercially statewide and recreationally south of Pt. Yankee by the mid 90’s.As an end result, over 25 years worth of divers were certified in Southern California not knowing what an abalone was because they’ve never seen one.
As far as biological extinctions go, this one produced mixed results. Die hards could still take them recreationally along the isolated and intimidating north coast. Southern and Central California kind of moved on with both commercial and recreational endeavors becoming more focused on the spiny lobster and red urchin. It was almost as if everyone just kind of threw up their hands and said “okay, what’s next?”
It started as kind of a hail Mary. What if we could restore the fishery? What do we need to know to make this happen? How do we then physically do it? Reseeding hundreds of miles of nearshore habitat with a enough abalone to produce a viable broadcast spawning population seemed, on the surface, pretty far fetched (***Broadcast spawning means all the abs throw their stuff in the air(or water) like they just don’t care and hope there is opposite sex genetic material getting expelled close enough to connect.)
This is when necessity called in those that can try to make it happen. This is when necessity called in the scientists.
Right now in California, there is an amazing array of scientists working on restoration of the abalone population. Work is being done by federal agencies, state institutions, and non profits to study and ultimately restore this missing part of today’s kelp forest landscape. Listed below are just a few of the projects going on that you should know about that are working to make our nearshore waters a healthier, and more importantly, and a more balanced place. So read a paragraph, learn a little, and think a lot about the types of programs and science you should be supporting. The ocean you save could be your own. See you out there.
With the collapse of multiple species of abs, there has been the obvious question of what’s first? In California, the white abalone is the first invertebrate to be placed on the Federal Endangered Species list. NOAA scientist are currently studying the collapse of this deeper water ab and collecting brood stock to replenish the population.
In a joint effort between NOAA and The Santa Monica Bay Foundation, as well as support from The Nature Conservancy, scientist are working to develop methodology and facilities needed to restore abalone in the southern California bight.
A very cool and ambitious program that not only is striving to restore native green abalone populations in southern California, but also to create the education component that will help Californians understand why they should care about abalone and why they are important to our oceans health. Here is a great read from the Orange County Register about the great work Nancy Caruso at Orange County’s Get Inspired is doing.