Bodega Bay researchers help endangered abalone breed

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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.

White abalone was added to the federal list of endangered species in 2001, the first marine invertebrate on the list. The only other one, added later, is the black abalone, also a Southern California native, though they can be found in the wild as far north as Bodega Bay. Moore has a small colony of black abalone at the Bodega Bay lab but has not yet begun a breeding program.

While over-fishing is likely the main cause of its decline, white abalone has also suffered considerably from a disease called "withering syndrome," a bacterial condition that causes the all-important foot of the abalone to shrink and deform. That can cause the creature to fall off the rock surfaces where it grazes and die.

Aquilino said even the red abalone off the Sonoma Coast have this bacteria, but it only turns deadly in warmer water found off Southern California. One of the long-term worries about the healthier red abalone population is that climate change could warm local waters enough to bring withering syndrome to Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

The main challenge for researchers trying to save the white abalone is how little they know about the animal. By the time scientists got interested in the habits and preferences of the creature, the population had been reduced to a few scattered survivors in areas that are 100 feet deep or more.

"We know very little about the ecology of the species because it had been wiped out, or mostly wiped out, before we could do the surveys," she said.

What biologists know about the better-understood red abalone isn't all that much help, as it turns out. Their breeding schedule is quite different: where the red abalone can breed through much of the year, the white abalone only does so in the late winter and early spring.

And experience has shown that they seem to be unusually reluctant breeders. When they finally did agree to breed in 2012 and 2013, they proved to be less fertile than expected, leading the rescue team to conclude there is some key environmental condition that they are missing in the carefully controlled aquarium environment.

They're hoping the increasing numbers of juvenile abalone at the Bodega lab will allow them to experiment a bit to figure out how to boost the fertility of the animals.

But why spend all this time and effort to save a creature that seems so ill-suited to help itself?

Aquilino and Moore say much of it is cultural. Abalone has been an important food source and its colorful shells have been a beloved form of decorations on the coast from the earliest Native Americans to today. It once provided a living for a thriving fishing community and diving for abalone is a still a cherished family tradition for many along the North Coast.

And, Moore said, humans bear a moral burden to restore the abalone.

"We caused this situation to occur," he said. "It was over-fishing ... I think we owe it to them."

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