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Bringing Back the Abalone

AbaloneNOAA Fisheries funds research to restore abalone populations in the Pacific Northwest

October 3, 2011- Prized by seafood connoisseurs and divers, and known for their stunning metallic shells, West Coast abalone hold remarkable ecological significance. These marine mollusks are “ecosystem engineers” because they inhabit subtidal rocky habitat and, thanks to their grazing behaviors, condition the habitat for colonization by other species. The West Coast is home to seven species of abalone, but due to illegal harvest, disease, and predation, two abalone populations are now listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act and three others are identified as “species of concern.”

In September, NOAA Fisheries provided the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife more than $560,000 for research toward the restoration of pinto abalone—one of the West Coast species of concern. Pinto abalone
historically ranged from California to Alaska, but high harvest levels in the
waters of Washington and British Columbia in the late 1980s and early
1990s diminished the population.  In 1994, Washington State closed the
recreational fishery, but the return of historic wild numbers did not occur.
Individual abalone were now removed from reproductive mates and therefore
unable to reproduce at a restorative rate.

AbaloneThis NOAA-funded research program, with contributions from state and private partners, will develop hatchery and nursery programs for captive propagation and rearing. In addition, some abalone will be relocated to facilitate reproduction. Bolstering the number of pinto abalone in the wild  will help ensure the population is self-sustaining and on course to recover without federal protections. This targeted research will extend far beyond Northwest waters by contributing to the recovery of the other protected abalone species throughout the world. The results of the research will help scientists in other areas refine their propagation protocols and restoration methods.

These abalone restoration efforts have fostered strong partnerships among federal, state, academic, and private partners in the Pacific Northwest.  This successful collaboration among the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries, Puget Sound Restoration Fund, University of Washington, and Western Washington University may avert the need for additional regulatory protection for abalone.  

Written by Megan Forbes,
Photo credit: Janna Nichols (pinto abalone)

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