The future of an iconic California animal hangs on the fate of a delicate band of survivors in a seawater aquarium in Bodega Bay.
The highly endangered white abalone has dwindled from a once-plentiful feature of the seas off Los Angeles and San Diego to less than 2,000 in the wild, hiding in waters too deep for divers to reach them. And the remaining wild animals seem to have quit breeding, with no juveniles spotted in decades.
The species' one hope lies in a colony of just 54 adult abalone scattered in research labs throughout the state, including the Bodega Marine Laboratory in Sonoma County. For reasons nobody quite knows, these animals had resolutely refused to breed since 2003. The females appeared willing, but the males failed to respond.
"I guess they just weren't in the mood," said Kristin Aquilino, a postdoctoral scholar at U.C. Davis' White Abalone Captive Breeding Program, housed at the Bodega Bay lab.
All that changed last year. After years of tinkering with conditions, ranging from adjusting water temperature to trying to replicate the seasonal sunrise and sunset patterns off Southern California, researchers in Southern California managed to coax a few of the creatures to breed. Then they did it again this year.
The resulting babies were quickly transferred to Bodega Bay, which has the expertise and equipment to handle the delicate little abalone, an aquatic version of the snail.
"I like to think of this as a Wine Country spa retreat for the abalone," Aquilino said, a place where they can be kept safe, bathed in cool water, and coddled in the lab's big plastic buckets.
The first efforts at breeding may not seem like much, but considering nobody had seen a baby white abalone in nine years, it was big news. Today there are 20 1-year-olds from that first breeding season at the lab and about 100 newborns, tiny little creatures no bigger than a pebble.
"We're like helicopter parents for those white abalone," Aquilino said, standing over a big plastic vat where the tiny newborns cling to plastic sheeting coated with food. "We want to give them all the attention possible; we're trying to give everyone the best chance they can get."
The white abalone are related to but different than the familiar red abalone that populate Sonoma's coast. The reds are larger and heartier, breeding more prolifically even in captivity.
"Some of that is that we have so much more experience with red abalone," which live closer to shore and have been farmed commercially for decades, said Jim Moore, senior fish pathologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the lab's expert on abalone of all sorts.
While the red abalone populations have declined dramatically in recent decades, they are so far not threatened. They can still be harvested in the area, though the state places tight limits on people diving for them — just three in a day and no more than 24 in a year.
Commercial fishing for the seven abalone species native to California waters was phased out during the 1990s and banned completely in 1997, ending an industry that once brought in more than 5 million pounds of abalone annually. The North Coast is now the only area open even to recreational harvest of abalone.