The plight and recovery efforts of Southern California’s white abalone

A relatively new installation at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center highlights the conservation work to bring the local species back from the brink of extinction.

SANTA BARBARA—White abalone were once numbered in the millions off the coast of California. They were caught, sold, shucked and enjoyed in a thriving industry. Today, NOAA Fisheries estimates population numbers sit around 1,600 to 2,500. NOAA Fisheries attributed the decline to commercial fishing.

In 2001, the large sea snails were the first marine invertebrate listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2001. Efforts to revive the wild population have been around for the past two decades, with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center a player in those efforts.

For the past 13 years, the Sea Center has been home to a cohort of mature white abalone. In July 2019, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center brought more light on those efforts with the opening of a new exhibit titled “Saving the White Abalone,” illustrating the abalone life cycle and detailing conservation efforts.

The Santa Barbara Harbor Commissioners were the latest to be looped in, getting an update about the exhibit and recovery efforts by Sea Center’s Aquarist Manager, Thomas Wilson on Feb. 20.

“It’s universally accepted that the species has not undergone any significant reproductive success in the wild since the 70s,” Wilson said during his presentation at the Feb. 20 Harbor Commission meeting.

Sea Center is a member of the White Abalone Restoration Consortium (WARC), a collection of groups working to expand scientific knowledge of white abalone and increase public awareness of the endangered species.

The Saving the White Abalone exhibit highlights conservation efforts, including the White Abalone Captive Breeding Program and White Abalone Recovery Program, which breed, raise and study abalone in captivity. The exhibit provides a look some of what goes into that, featuring a grow-out display demonstrating the process of raising white abalone from larvae in captivity.

“It mimic’s grow-out troughs for recently settled white abalone larvae,” Wilson said.

While the exhibit is new, the plight of white abalone is not.

White abalone conservation efforts date back to 1997 when it became illegal in California to fish for white abalone. According to NOAA Fisheries, the closure may have slowed the animals’ decline, but likely not by enough to recover the population.

“It was recognized by the scientific community that the only way for this species to recover would be captive breeding,” Wilson said.

A White Abalone Captive Breeding Program was launched at University of California, Santa Barbara Marine Science Institute (UCSB MSI) with the first captive spawning attempt taking place in 2000. The program moved to Northern California in 2011, where it remains today, headquartered at UC Davis-Bodega Marine Laboratory (BML).

Every year BML is involved in captive spawning attempts and in 2013 Sea Center was asked to participate.

“We were never intended to spawn any of our animals,” Wilson said. “We were just there to have them on display so that the public could see them and educate them.”

Sea Center has since been continually involved in spawning efforts, with mixed results, according Wilson. However, the program has experienced overall success in their spawning efforts, leading to BML reaching capacity with holding animals in recent years, Wilson said. In 2015, Sea Center received 50 white abalone from those spawning efforts and 50 more again in 2018. Those white abalone are on display for the public at the Sea Center.

In April 2019, Sea Center celebrated another first, receiving abalone larvae from BML, according to Wilson.

After abalone eggs hatch, they turn into larvae, which float for a week or two before finding the right hard substrate to attach to. The snails then begin to develop the adult shell form. Wilson said 40 viable larvae survived. The larvae are now about a centimeter big and continue to grow each day. Sea Center will continue to monitor shell lengths and weights of the sea snails.

“As we move forward we are trying to research the best holding conditions for these animals so that we can grow the most robust animals we can in captivity,” Wilson said.

Another major success in the recovery efforts happened last December when WARC was able to out plant the first batch of white abalone in Southern California, according to Wilson.

“It’s the first time in the history of the program they’ve been able to do so,” Wilson said. “It’s a huge milestone.”

Wilson said these conservation efforts are full steam ahead.

“The overall goal is to out plant these animals to bolster the wild populations,” Wilson said. “Its estimated the wild population is dying at a rate of I believe 14 percent every year.”

The Saving the White Abalone exhibit can be viewed at Sea Center, 211 Stearns Wharf, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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