Holding Fast, Or Failing?

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

I HAVE ONLY HELD AN ABALONE ONCE. The giant marine snail, plucked from the white laboratory tank to which it was glued, gripped my hand as if holding onto the California seafloor just beyond us. I looked at its ear-shaped shell, coated in a galaxy of algae — its tentacles probing the above-water world, its eyes moving about curiously in their tubular sockets. After a few moments, its grip tightened, and the grooves on its underside, resembling a palm or a fingerprint, began to fill in the lines on my own hand. Soon, it felt like there was no space left between us.

When I recall this experience months later, it is as if the abalone is still in my hand, cool like seawater, but alive, and pulsing, and holding me just as much as I was holding it. The feeling, so nearly tangible, affects me like a phantom-limb.

For years, abalone have been in serious decline in California. While abalone shells persist, molded into sidewalk benches, nailed onto signposts, and laid on countless tribal gravestones, the animals themselves — seven species of which inhabit California waters — all continue to dwindle from their kelp forest homes. This stark reality is the result of decades of abalone overharvesting and climate disruption, the impacts of which have been amplified by trophic cascades.

When I held that living abalone, I felt more than just its grip. I felt the fastening of myself to another being. For a moment, I became a link between the stories of my species and those of another.

Abalone stories span the entire length of human habitation in California, and hold artists, surfers, scientists, watermen, Native tribes, and countless other coastal cultures in their breadth. Losing abalone would mean losing one of California’s oldest and most widespread connections to the natural world.

We are now at an inflection point in the history of these mollusks, where nascent restoration efforts are struggling against various ecological, technological, and cultural barriers to recovery. But a cohort of researchers is pushing through these obstacles, devoted to finding out if abalone can recover, or if their future is leaning inexorably toward extinction in the wild.

THE COMPLICATED HISTORY of abalone in California requires a good deal of time to recount, says Dr. Paul Dayton. His colleague at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, Dr. Ed Parnell, agrees, adding that the story sounds better between bites of freshly-baked pie. And thus, we find ourselves in the so-called “Pie Room” at Scripps, where assorted office chairs line a weathered wooden table covered with plates, forks, and flecks of light scattering off the midday Pacific as it dances beside La Jolla.

artwork, depicting a map of California and abalone species by shellIllustration by Dominick Leskiw.

Scripps is the first of nearly 30 stops my advisor, Benjamin Neal, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College, his two young children, and I will make on a 600-mile road trip up the California coast from La Jolla to just north of Bolinas, tracking down abalone devotees from all walks of life. While opening the box of peach pie, then the apple, I mention the particolored campervan that will rattle us along to each of these stops. Parnell and Dayton laugh, saying they could see it from a mile away.

Dayton, professor emeritus at Scripps, can boast a lifetime’s worth of experience in ocean research, much of it spent beneath the waves. He can also describe, in remarkable detail, the sea as it was many eras before his own. “Let’s go back to pre-contact with humans,” he says, to around 15,000 years ago, when the waters off Southern California were bulging with kelp, fish, sea otters, and yes, abalone, too. Though not without natural fluctuations, Dayton notes, this late-Pleistocene kelp forest ecosystem was well-balanced.

Then, around 7,000 years ago, Native peoples began harvesting abalone- and urchin-munching otters for meat and fur. Released from some natural predatory pressure, abalone and sea urchin populations began to swell. Beginning in the 1500s, the Spanish colonists devastated Indigenous populations with violence and diseases, and, along with other Europeans, took over the fur trade. Abalone populations swelled further.

‘One reason the abalone and everyone are in trouble is there’s no food.’

Around the time California gained statehood in 1850, the snails could safely mosey out from under protective rocks and crevices to find more kelp and other food. With ample abalone out and about, voracious sea urchins — which, when unchecked, overwhelm and strip the seafloor clean — couldn’t stick their tubular feet to the ground. “The abalone outcompeted the urchins for space,” Dayton says, describing how one of the abalone’s key ecological roles is placing a check on urchin populations.

As abalone gained a stronger foothold in the Pacific, rumors of gold brought shiploads of people to California, including Chinese immigrants seeking to escape the political unrest, poverty, and opium addictions plaguing their homeland. When gold became scarcer, these immigrants were scorned by white miners and forced into more marginal occupations such as coastal fishing. Soon, they discovered the remarkable abundance of abalone that had proliferated in the absence of harvesting by Indigenous peoples and otters. Chinese fishers used traditional techniques to gather, dry, and export abalone meat to Asia — particularly black abalone, which was easiest to gather from intertidal aggregations — and also began selling the animals’ exquisite shells as ornamentation. By 1879, this fishery had already reached its peak.

Within a few years, however, xenophobia and discriminatory laws put an end to Chinese fishing operations. Japanese and Euro-American divers seized the abalone industry in the early 1900s and used new hardhat technologies to harvest subtidal species from previously inaccessible depths. Small boats could overfill and nearly sink themselves with two tons of abalone per dive, plucking them away from living assemblies up to a dozen animals thick. When anti-Japanese sentiment spiked around the Second World War, Euro-Americans took over the industry, now with more mobile and efficient scuba gear, despite early warnings of abalone decline.

As thousands of large adult abalone were pried off the seafloor, divers were noticing more and more urchins crawling about. That’s because all this time, as abalone were declining due to overharvesting, so too were moray eels, lobsters, sea bass, and other kelp forest animals that helped maintain the ecosystem’s balance.

In the 1990s, as their numbers dwindled drastically, fisheries for each abalone species began to close, one after the other. By the turn of the century, all that was left was a strictly regulated, free-dive only recreational harvest of red abalone along the intimidating Northern California coast. Then, in 2018, that fishery closed, too — and for the first time in the thousands of years of human occupation of California, no wild abalone could be legally harvested anywhere along the coast.

In late 2018, the statewide moratorium was extended to 2021. But it might have come too late. By then, all seven species were struggling to hang on. White abalone and black abalone had already been listed as federally endangered, and pinto, pink, and green abalone had been listed as “species of concern.” Flat abalone populations contracted to the point where the species was no longer common in California waters, and red abalone became more abundant on abalone aquaculture farms than in the wild ocean.

DAYTON EXPLAINS THAT, fundamentally, abalone faced a population density problem. As “broadcast spawners” — animals that breed by casting sperm and eggs out into the sea — abalone need to be within mere meters of each other for successful fertilization. Intense harvesting broke up the aggregations of abalone that were key to their reproduction. Any remaining large, fecund individuals are now effectively sterile given the ever-widening distance between mates.

One of the abalone’s key ecological roles is placing a check on sea urchin populations. When left unchecked, urchins can overwhelm and strip the seafloor and kelp forests clean, as is happening now in California’s coastal waters. Photo by Michael Zeigler / Istockphoto.
One of the abalone’s key ecological roles is placing a check on sea urchin populations. When left unchecked, urchins can overwhelm and strip the seafloor and kelp forests clean, as is happening now in California’s coastal waters. Photo by Michael Zeigler / Istockphoto.

Overfishing of other kelp forest species like black sea bass and other large-bodied predatory fish hasn’t helped either. Octopus — another major source of abalone mortality — have proliferated in the absence of predators. Diseases, too, such as the nefarious withering syndrome that affects abalones’ digestive organs, periodically kill off enormous portions of abalone populations. Moreover, carpets of purple urchins, sometimes with up to 100 individuals per square meter, eat every kelp in sight, since abalone no longer occupy great swaths of seafloor from which to exclude them. “I’m worried about the kelps,” Dayton says. “One reason the abalone and everyone are in trouble is there’s no food.”

And then there’s climate change, which further threatens the kelp forests on which abalone depend. In Southern California, intensifying El Niño and “warm blob” events bring unusually high ocean temperatures, and limit the dissolved nutrients that Macrocystis, commonly known as giant kelp, needs for growth. Farther north, when Nereocystis, or bull kelp, aren’t being chewed down by urchins, they’re likely to be torn away by increasingly harsh winter storms.

“It’s a sad story of serial screwing-up of the ecosystem,” Parnell says wistfully. “You have a trend where abalone food supply is decreasing at the same time that they’ve been hammered by warm water, associated diseases, and overharvesting.”

I look from the empty pie boxes to Dayton and Parnell. We sit quietly for a moment as the sea outside shifts in the afternoon sun. Parnell leaves for a bit and comes back with a handful of small shells, some numbered, others half-covered in wax — remnants of a juvenile abalone recovery project. This experiment, long abandoned, served as a predecessor to what is quickly becoming one of the most important components of abalone restoration today — outplanting.

A SMALL, SUN-WEATHERED building situated amidst the ceaseless industrial stir of Terminal Island — a primarily artificial slab of land more or less divided between the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach — seems like a strange place to raise endangered marine invertebrates. Yet, that is exactly what Director of Marine Operations Heather Burdick and her team at the Santa Monica Bay Foundation have set out to do.

“We’ve been doing captive spawning here in our lab with greens and reds, and now we’re starting to work with white abalone,” Burdick announces from the parking lot, over a thrum of shipping trucks and ocean freighters. She leads us into her lab, which burbles with the sound of filters, while water in trough-shaped tanks glints with UV-light from overhead. Peering around, I see a handful of tiny pink and olive shells clinging to the tank walls. These are critically endangered baby white abalone, Burdick’s colleague, Armand Barilotti, says.

These young mollusks are the result of a hydrogen peroxide spawning method that has worked to induce in-house reproduction nearly a dozen times in the “Ab Lab.” Essentially, an enzyme naturally activated by low levels of hydrogen peroxide causes the abalone to produce the reproductive hormone prostaglandin endoperoxide, and spawn. This method has enabled semi-predictable spawning in the lab and has generated juvenile white abalone for eventual release in the wild. Leaning in to look at the minuscule animals attached to the walls of the tanks, Burdick goes on to mention a newer “deck spawning” technique that is also already being practiced. This method involves spawning adult abalone aboard research vessels, releasing them immediately afterward, and going on to raise the larvae back in the lab. In other words, researchers facilitate reproduction while reducing disturbance to wild adult abalone, who don’t ever have to leave the vicinity of their home reefs. Efforts akin to those made by the Bay Foundation are now in motion across the state, all with the goal of raising abalone in captivity, for eventual outplanting back into the sea.

“There are so many people involved, and everybody sort of has a niche,” Burdick says. “We’re going to be the staging center for outplanting. Bodega Bay [in Northern California] is leading the captive breeding program, and then you have people at NOAA going out and trying to find existing white abalone so we can learn more about their habitats.”

photo of an aquarium with an abalone, an urchin, and a fish
Most abalone in labs have never seen a wild environment, so researchers don’t know how they will react to threats once outplanted. Photo by Dominick Leskiw.

These efforts are an important start for abalone restoration, and they are backed by passion and momentum. But the program is still nascent, and it lacks the funding required to conduct operations consistently and on a scale large enough to combat the dozens of confounding elements working against abalone recovery today.

Not to mention that dependably breeding and raising abalone in captivity is no easy feat. For one thing, abalone reproductive cycles can be difficult to time properly in lab settings because abalone do not breed at regular intervals. Their gametes are also often lost down the drain, as broadcast spawning requires constant, sweeping water flow to work. Even if all goes well and baby abalone are born, no one is sure what levels of light, temperature, and filtration best suit their long-term growth while in captivity.

Outplanting also brings challenges. Scientists do not yet know the best locations to outplant, since the entire California coast is experiencing harsh fluctuations in temperature and food levels due to changing climate. Predators and people, too, often slow the process — like the octopus who has no idea how resource-laden and politically vested its meal is, or the poacher who wants to make a few hundred dollars by selling a recently-outplanted abalone illegally on the black market. Young abalone also hide for a few years when first settled onto reefs, so it can be impossible to gauge outplanting success at the outset, adding an additional challenge for researchers trying to assess outcomes and fine-tune their efforts.

For instance, following an outplanting project conducted in 2015, in which 800 baby green abalone were placed in net-covered PVC pipes to protect them from predators, Barilotti recorded extremely low numbers of survivors for the first year-and-a-half. Then, their numbers appeared to resurge. “Abalone counts went from the low teens to 40, then 70, then up to about 150 animals within a 10 by 10 meter site,” he says, indicating that outplanted abalone may actually thrive given the right conditions and enough time.

‘We don’t know enough yet to say we shouldn’t keep trying.’

Abalone behavior after outplanting poses yet another uncertainty. Because most of the abalone in labs have never seen a wild environment, researchers do not know how they will react to threats like sea stars or other predators once outplanted. Is predator response for these animals, which have no obvious brain structure, innate? Must it be learned? If so, are captive abalone capable of being “taught” typical behaviors like hiding or twisting their shells back and forth until predators are shaken off?

These questions are still being worked out by researchers like Melissa Neuman, Abalone Recovery Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, who has just begun testing predator responses by placing sea stars atop captive abalone and observing how the snails react.

Despite these challenges, the organizations and people working with abalone are determined not to give up. Jessica Brasher, animal husbandry manager at the Ocean Institute in Southern California’s Dana Point, puts it simply: “We don’t know enough yet to say that we shouldn’t keep trying.” Right now, she explains, “success” does not mean recovery, but rather proving we can figure out the methods necessary to get there.

Consultation and collaboration with Indigenous stakeholders could facilitate this effort. But so far, to the frustration of many coastal tribes, abalone science and data collection in California have largely not involved Native peoples.

The absence of Native voices does not reflect a lack of interest from the tribes. Hillary Renick and Javier Silva of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians are immensely concerned about the abalone’s plight in California, and have persistently voiced their need to be heard alongside other groups working on abalone declines. “Discussion should always begin with people indigenous to the land, wherever you are,” Renick asserts. “You’re talking about our habitat and ecology and the cultural significance that goes along with our foods, our plants, our medicines, our homelands, our aboriginal ties to the landscape.”

Silva acknowledges that there is no hard-and-fast answer, no one solution that traditional ecological knowledge — whether from the Pomo people or any other Native tribe — will provide as abalone populations continue to decline. But deliberate and progressive co-management between tribes and other groups involved in abalone recovery would only strengthen restoration efforts.

BODEGA MARINE LABORATORY sits on a foggy, heath-colored headland a mile or so outside the sea-worn village of Bodega Bay, just about an hour-and-a-half drive north of San Francisco. On a damp July afternoon, with droplets of marine layer in my hair and the tang of fresh-caught crab lingering in my nose, I enter the lab to find a small white office where Dr. Laura Rogers-Bennett, research associate for the University of California, Davis and senior environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, has built her life around abalone. She is perhaps more involved than any individual in efforts to recover the sea snails today.

Biologist Laura Rogers-Bennett, who is raising critically endangered white abalone at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, says “the only thing we can do with this species is captive rearing and putting them out there.” Photo by Dominick Leskiw.
Biologist Laura Rogers-Bennett, who is raising critically endangered white abalone at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, says “the only thing we can do with this species is captive rearing and putting them out there.” Photo by Dominick Leskiw.

Rogers-Bennett tells me she is raising critically endangered white abalone. The most recent population models estimate that only 3,600 white abalone remain in the wild — just 1 percent of what their population was 20 years ago. With a natural mortality rate of 12 percent each year, the entire species will almost certainly reach quasi-extinction if outplanting is not implemented within the next few years. “The only thing we can do with this species is captive rearing and putting them out there,” she says. Rogers-Bennett is more prepared than anyone to do so — there are over 50 times more white abalone in her lab than there are left in the ocean.

In the meantime, the team at Bodega Marine Laboratory has been outplanting red abalone as a proxy for whites, reestablishing wild red populations where possible, and along the way learning what techniques might be applicable to white abalone outplanting in the future.

Yet, white abalone recovery only makes up about 40 percent of the work Rogers-Bennett and her team do. The rest, she notes enthusiastically, focuses on urchin management, kelp recovery, and restoration possibilities for the other imperiled abalone species of the California coast. Abalone cannot recover just through outplanting; if whites or any species of abalone are to make a comeback, we must concurrently work toward restoring the entire coastal kelp forest ecosystem, Rogers-Bennett explains. She, along with Dayton and many others involved in abalone recovery, consider the establishment and enforcement of Marine Protected Areas one of the best ways to do this. There are currently more than 120 Marine Protected Areas covering some 850 square miles of California’s coastal and ocean habitat. Many of these — like the San Diego-Scripps Coastal State Marine Conservation Area and the much larger Richardson Rock State Marine Reserve off San Miguel Island — already provide relatively safe havens and ecological recovery zones for abalone, kelp, and myriad ocean life.

Education also offers an opportunity to change perceptions around abalone, Rogers-Bennett says. Given the moratorium on harvesting, we have the rare chance to adjust how people view these animals, a chance to teach new generations to see abalone less as a commodity and appreciate them as fellow beings, organisms that must be treated with respect and care especially when we choose to interact with them consumptively.

The Ocean Institute in Dana Point, which receives around 100,000 visitors each year, half of which are young students enrolled in marine-related school programs, is doing just that. Students learn and contribute to ocean research through activities such as dissecting squid, identifying animals in tidal pools, and exploring the ocean on a traditional sailing brig to count marine mammals. The institute has now taken steps to incorporate abalone into their programs, too, including the one which grazes slowly around a tank at the entrance, greeting children and adult visitors alike. It often pauses to rest right up against the glass of the tank, photogenically posed on the rim of another, long-passed, abalone’s shell.

THIS PAST AUTUMN, I was given a boxful of abalone shells to use as models for some natural history illustrations I’m working on. One, found many years ago half-buried along a beach in Cambria, a small seaside town on the central California coast, came from a red abalone; it’s almost the size of a dinner plate. I pick this shell up in my left hand, the same hand that remembers how it felt to hold, and be held by, a living abalone. Its outer surface is coarse, pocked with four open respiratory holes and ridged by countless, intricate calcium carbonate accretions. Pink and green concentric growth lines, each one matching the color of algae the animal had been eating at the time, ripple across the shell’s surface like rings on a tree trunk. Old tube worm cases, long abandoned, are affixed to it, as are the sun-bleached remains of tiny bryozoans. These aquatic invertebrates are hitchhikers, and serve as reminders that in the vast, mysterious ocean, even a single abalone can become the world to other lifeforms.

Abalone shells show a record of the animal's diet over time. Photo by Dominick Leskiw.
Pink and green concentric growth lines matching the color of algae the abalone had been eating at the time ripple across their shells. Photo by Dominick Leskiw.

I flip the shell over to inspect the iridescent interior. Every tilt of my hand reveals a new palette of shimmering hues — violet, brown, blue-green, silver. A hint of orange reminds me of the bright, shiny waders I saw aquaculturists wearing while gathering kelp for their abalone below a dim wooden pier in Monterey. Their sustainable storefront is doing well for now, but rising sea levels may result in its closure in a few years. Dark purple, deep in the shell’s apex, is reminiscent of the urchins, crawling, eating, and clearing the sea floor. “Urchins are not the enemy,” I recall Silva saying during our conversation a few weeks earlier. “They’re changing, and trying to survive, too.” Somewhere between turquoise and olive green, I catch a glimpse of the kelp forest itself, the once-countless fronds which are sparse now, but still swaying and reaching up to the surface.

These colors are real reminders of our ties to a deceased animal, and a potentially dying species. Every long-vacant, ear-shaped abalone shell rings with an opalescent plea, begging us to listen to, and learn from, the plight of these shellfish. Abalone will almost certainly fail to see any significant recovery without human intervention. What ends up happening to these sea snails will reveal our capacity to reinstate and nurture the ecological and cultural complexity of our world that we continue to destroy.

Dr. Benjamin Neal, a marine benthic ecologist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, served as Leskiw’s advisor at the time of this article’s publication. Leskiw would like to express continuing gratitude for Dr. Neal’s guidance and support throughout the research, travel, and writing processes.

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