Pandemic Sets Back Abalone Restoration Effort in California

Mollusk researchers are pushing forward with their work as much as possible despite limitations.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

In California, the Covid-19 pandemic has introduced a host of challenges to the scientific community. Researchers have struggled to collect data under stay at home orders, contended with depleted staff, and in the case of those who study abalone, at least, faced new challenges when it comes to collecting food for the animals in their care.

photo of white abalone
Scientists have been raising endangered white abalone in labs for outplanting in the ocean as part of an ambitious effort to bring the species back from the brink. Photo by Dominick Leskiw.

“It’s certainly limiting our ability to work efficiently,” says Dr. Ed Parnell, an associate researcher with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA, just north of San Diego.

For years, marine scientists like Parnell have conducted annual surveys of the region’s sea life, called time series studies, to research changes over the years. His team faced some hurdles to this effort in the early weeks of the pandemic, including additional permission requirements from the university to get back in the water.

Parnell notes that, sadly, shortly after his team gained permission to begin their yearly spring invertebrate survey — which includes abalone — a red tide hit southern California, leaving the sea too clouded to work in for some time. Since the red tide has cleared, the team has been back in the water, though conducting research from a small watercraft with just a handful of people is no easy task in the era of social distancing.

On the positive side, the natural ecosystem, at least in Parnell’s neighborhood, is faring relatively well. Right now, growing conditions in southern California are great for kelp — one of the most important food sources for abalone. Cool water temperatures are likely to support this growth for the time being, while a reprieve from recreational boating almost certainly reduced the illegal poaching pressure abalone and other kelp forest creatures often face. However, now that beaches have reopened, and restrictions have begun to relax, no one is sure whether this brief environmental respite will last.

Farther north in the drizzly town of Bodega Bay, Dr. Kristin Aquilino is struggling to care for her lab full of endangered white abalone. Aquilino, project director for Bodega Marine Laboratory’s white abalone captive breeding program, leads a team of over a dozen staff members working to maintain the white abalone in her lab; though now, only a few staff members can be in the lab at a time. She’s turned down the water temperature for her abalone, hoping this will slow their metabolisms and encourage them to eat less while still remaining relatively healthy.

And they have been eating less. “One of the biggest challenges has been kelp collection,” Aquilino says. “We collect kelp from the wild for our white abalone, and we do that from beaches.” Beaches in Sonoma County were closed in March, and full public access has only recently been restored. During closures, researchers at Bodega Marine Lab had to acquire special access permits to bays and coastlines in order to gather much-needed food for captive creatures. Kelp collection, Aquilino sighs, is also made difficult by social distancing.

Holding Fast, Or Failing?

There are dozens of confounding elements working against abalone recovery on the California coast.

In early March, just before the pandemic escalated in California, Aquilino’s abalone program successfully induced captive spawning — no easy feat. The scientists hoped to induce another spawn in late April to increase the number of abalone in this year’s cohort for outplanting. But young abalone are tough to care for, especially during their week-long larval period; accordingly, a full team of scientists must work together closely to help the tiny mollusks settle. Thus, Aquilino and her colleagues had to cancel a second spawning attempt since it would have been too hard to pull off with social distancing restrictions.

Yet, even a small cohort of settled abalone may prove crucial to the survival of the program moving forward. For, had these abalone spawned just a few weeks later than they did, notes David Witting, a fish biologist at the NOAA Restoration Center in Long Beach, researchers might not have had any sizable cohort for the whole year — and this would have been devastating to abalone restoration efforts.

Witting is heavily involved in white abalone outplanting efforts, meaning he and a team of divers take abalone from labs and release them at carefully-selected offshore sites south of Santa Barbara’s Point Conception. The first white abalone outplanting event, which took place in October 2019, was “quite successful,” according to Witting. The problem moving forward is that researchers had planned to “pulse the sites with abalone twice a year,” once in the spring and once in the fall, “trying to simulate multiple recruitment events” as occurs in nature. Witting says divers would outplant abalone like this for five years, hoping to accumulate survivors over time and begin restoring a semi-wild population.

Yet, divers cannot social distance on small boats, especially when a whole team of them is needed to service the sites and effectively outplant the animals. For this reason, the spring outplant was cancelled for 2020, and Witting says he has weekly meetings to discuss the feasibility of a fall pulse. “Missing one pulse is not the end of the world,” he notes. “But missing a whole year kind of sets us back … Plus we lose the ability to monitor the sites,” which is a necessary component of determining abalone survival and habitat quality.

Unfortunately, unlike Parnell’s annual time series study and Aquilino’s animal care emergency, abalone outplanting is not considered an essential scientific endeavor. Thus, says Witting, gaining permission to get back on the water right now has been extremely difficult. To make matters worse, many scientists are fearful of funding shortages once quarantine ends given the distressing state of our economy; this would make future restoration efforts even more challenging than they already are.

It seems that under such pandemomious circumstances, abalone researchers are struggling nearly as much as the sea snails they have been working so hard to save. Yet, there are still reasons to remain hopeful. Aquilino emphasizes how this period of time has allowed her to see how humankind’s current situation and the dire conditions surrounding white abalone are not as different as they might seem. She encourages us to find solace in the responsibility we so evidently need to take concerning our fellow beings. Speaking of both white abalone restoration, and of human care efforts during the pandemic, she says “this isn’t the time to let momentum slow down.”

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