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By Kat Kerlin on November 29, 2016

Things were looking pretty grim for a group of scientists in search of wild white abalone this fall.

Researchers from UC Davis, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA Fisheries were recently granted a permit to collect wild endangered white abalone for the first time in nearly 12 years to add to a captive breeding program. Armed with GPS coordinates and two teams of divers, they spent hundreds of hours scouring supposed hot spots for signs of white abalone, but none could be found.

Then, in late October, Ian Taniguchi, a diver and environmental scientist with the CDFW, spotted one white abalone out of the corner of his eye in Southern California.

He took out a kitchen spatula to remove it from its rock. With a swift, nerve-wracking flip — if he broke its shell, no biggie, just, you know, the fate of the entire species — he popped it off, carefully placed it in a bag, and surfaced.

When Kristin Aquilino, who leads the white abalone captive breeding program at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, saw the video of this moment later, it was nothing short of a suspense thriller.

“I knew the animal was healthy and not injured, but even so, watching that video, my heart was just pounding,” she said.

High Stakes in the Deep Sea

In a sea largely devoid of wild white abalone, the stakes are high for keeping this one safe for the survival of the species.  

“We’re finding that there are very few adult white abalone even in places where people had seen them in the past,” said Laura Rogers-Bennett, a biologist with the UC Davis Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center and the CDFW. “This really highlights the importance of our program.”

White abalones’ historic range stretched from Point Conception in California south to Baja California in Mexico. Nowadays, scientists are lucky to find even one along all that coast. Prized and overfished for their tender meat, they became the first marine invertebrate to be listed as an endangered species, in 2001. Wild populations are now unable to find each other in the ocean to reproduce, making them effectively sterile.

The Power of One

The white abalone captive breeding program has a proven track record of caring for, raising and spawning white abalone. Operated at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, the program draws on the expertise of a consortium of agencies and nonprofits, including CDFW and NOAA Fisheries.

The program experienced its first successful spawning effort in 2012, when three of approximately 50 captive white abalone spawned to create about 20 new adults. That number has since multiplied to about 10,000 juvenile and adult white abalone.  

“We estimate that we now have about twice as many white abalone at the lab than are in the wild,” said Rogers-Bennett.

The problem is that all of them are siblings or half siblings.

“We have four or five parents at the lab from our wild collected broodstock,” Aquilino said.

“Even inserting just one more individual into the mix is huge. It adds a big component to the genetic diversity we already have.”

White Abalone Spa Treatments

Lonely Abe or Abby — the scientists didn’t want to risk disturbing the already stressed animal upon collection by inspecting its gonads — is currently recuperating at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. It will soon join its more domesticated brethren at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, where it will begin its pampered, oh-so-California life of spa treatments and organic food.

An antibiotic bath cleanses the abalone of bacteria. An exfoliating waxing treatment made from organic beeswax and coconut oil prevents organisms from boring into their shells. And while kelp is like a yummy Twinkie to a white abalone, researchers in the lab culture dulse — a nutritious red seaweed found at places like Whole Foods for humans to sprinkle over salads, soups and popcorn.  

Combined with the lab’s temperature-controlled, nutrient-rich seawater and “mood lighting” designed to encourage spawning, these techniques have grown increasingly effective over the years. In spring 2016, one female spawned 11 million eggs, making it the most successful spawning season yet.

Nurture Before Nature

The goal, however, is for this life of luxury to someday end and for white abalone to be planted in the wild. The research team is already working to identify potential sites to reestablish them in their natural habitat. For that to happen, population numbers and genetic diversity need to continue to rise.

The breeding program appears to be on the right track. The team continues to send divers out in search of more wild white abalone to add to their collection — and are calling on recreational abalone divers to let them know if and where they spot any white ones.   

Who knows? Perhaps white abalone may eventually get off the endangered species list and become a part of California cuisine and culture again. Their recovery could mean a recreational and commercial boon for divers. And, with their Zamboni-like cleaning of certain types of algae, these herbivores can be an ecological boon for the ocean, opening up areas for other abalone, plants and wildlife to settle.  

But mostly, the captive breeding team wants to bring back white abalone because they think humans owe it to them.

“In the end, we are responsible for this species being on the brink of extinction,” Aquilino said. “We took too many. We are the sole reason they are in this mess to begin with. We have a responsibility to save them.”

Plus, she adds, echoing a recent comment she made on NPR’s “Friends of Joe’s Big Idea” series, “They’re cute. Why wouldn’t you want to save them?”

Kat Kerlin covers the environment for Strategic Communications.