The white abalone is a type of marine snail. They mostly eat kelp, making them very important to the biodiversity of their habitat by keeping kelp species in check so one species doesn’t dominate, and clearing habitat for a diversity of kelp species. This eventually helps create more biodiversity in fish and other animals.
These abalones are found across the waters of Southern California and Mexico. There were once millions of them in this area but because of overfishing there are now very few. They can live for 30-45 years.
Native people in California have been eating abalones for ages, and large groups of abalone shells, indicating humans, have been found back to 7,400 years ago. Archeologist have also found abalone shells from 5,000 years all the way east to the Mississippi River, showing trade routes. Abalones were used for meat, tools, ornaments, and jewelry.
Pierce Brothers Abalone processing shop, CA. 1933. Copyright Pat Hathaway. Rogers-Bennett et al. 2002.
Abalones have a “foot” that helps them attach to rocks, and a shell that helps protect them from predators. They are broadcast spawners, who release eggs and sperms into the water when conditions are right.
White ablones were once abundant, allowing for a advantageous fishery during the ‘70s. However, overfishing soon took over, and the fishery went from harvesting 143,000 pounds per year to only 5,000 in barely a decade. In 1997, white abalone fishing was banned, but their meat can sell for very high prices, encouraging poachers. They were listed under the Endangered Species act in 2001.
The remaining white abalone populations are generally too far away from each other to successfully naturally recover. To get over this, organizations are breeding abalones in captivity for release. Withering syndrome is a disease that also causes large population declines.
Fisheries, N. O. A. A. (n.d.). White abalone. NOAA. Retrieved October 17, 2021, from https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/white-abalone.
Hayes, J. (2020, July 23). History of white abalone. Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute. Retrieved October 17, 2021, from https://marinescience.ucdavis.edu/research-programs/conservation/saving-white-abalone/history.
Fisheries, N. O. A. A. (n.d.). White abalone: Why you should care about this Critter. NOAA. Retrieved October 17, 2021, from https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/white-abalone-why-you-should-care-about-critter.
Cover image courtesy of NOAA