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UC Scientists Work To Bring Back The White Abalone

Aug 11, 2013

If you live in California you’re probably familiar with abalone. The sea snails native habitat is along the California coast. For decades abalone fishermen have flocked to the shore to catch them. One abalone species has suffered the consequences of its tasty meat more than most. The white abalone is endangered almost to the point of extinction. But as Amy Quinton reports from Sacramento, UC Davis scientists think they’ve set the mood for its recovery.

In the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, Kristin Aquilino reaches into a fish tank.

“Alright I’m going to pull out this pipe here and show you some of these juveniles,” says Aquilino.

Aquilino heads the white abalone captive breeding program. She often talks like a proud mother when she points to the tiny creatures.

“Awhh, right, these turned one on June 14th of this year, so just over a year old.”

Cute, but they are sea snails, so why exactly should anyone care?

“So right now the population is in really really bad shape, there are only a few thousand left in the wild. The animals that are left in the wild are so far apart from one another that they are effectively sterile, and so this population might already be extinct in the sense that it’s not currently reproducing on its own,” says Aquilino.

Because white abalone are broadcast spawners, males and females have to be in close proximity for a sperm to find an egg. Melissa Neuman with the National Marine Fisheries Service says scientists had it all wrong about the animal.

“We used to think of abalone as being this animal that you could never, never deplete,” says Neuman.

They thought abalone acted like other shelled organisms, living relatively short lives and reproducing often.

“That’s why fishing for them went on for as long as it did without us pulling the plug on it.”

But Neuman says abalone are delicate little creatures.

“Abalone behave more like a mammal in that they live to be 30, they’re not reproductive until they’re more like 5 to 8 years old and they’re only producing offspring maybe once a decade successfully,” says Neuman.

So researchers had a big job, get the animals to breed in captivity. That hadn’t happened with a white abalone in nearly a decade. To do so, Kristin Aquilino has to get up close and personal with them.

“We can tell the sex by looking at their gonad, let’s see if this one wants to show it… this may not be appropriate for radio,” says Aquilino.

Yeah, we’ll leave that to the imagination. Aquilino points to dark tanks that house two white abalone. She says this is where the mood is set..

“We have lighting that is attached to an astronomic clock that has lights come on and off the same time the sun rises and sets in the abalone’s native range in southern california, we have the temperature manipulated, feed them lots of algae, we sometimes play some Barry White,” says Aquilino.

Ok, so Aquilino says the Barry White music is NOT scientific. But after much trial and error, came success.

“In our care was a very small but important ray of hope for this entire species,” says Aquilino.

It’s still a long road ahead. Abalone females can produce millions of eggs, but only 1-percent survive to become juveniles. And in captivity, getting white abalone to become reproductive every year is more difficult than with their more abundant cousin, the red abalone. Aquilino says their research began using what they learned from red abalone farms in California.

“We start using their best techniques and then fiddling with them to try to make it right for the white abalone. It’s definitely possible that a lot of the work we’re doing here could be applicable to red abalone farms and could help them increase production or reduce costs,” says Aquilino.

Ultimately the goal is to one day repopulate the oceans with white abalone. Scientists say it will take several decades if not longer. But at least they’ll have Barry White to listen to.