California’s White Abalone About to Fulfill Prediction of Extinction

Friday, July 06, 2012
Bottom view of a while abalone


Scientists predicted 12 years ago that “without protection and intervention the white abalone is likely to go extinct in California within 10 years.”

They were wrong. It took about 12 years to reach the precipice.

There used to be millions of white abalone tucked into kelp forests and reefs from Point Conception to Baja California, but decades of overharvesting have reduced their number to a few thousand. A new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the same folks who conducted the first study, says the few remaining shellfish are too old or isolated to reproduce and will not be able to recover on their own.

The study says the only hope for the creatures, which live 35 years, is captive breeding.

Abalone fishing was popular between 1950 and 1970, with more than 4.4 million pounds taken by commercial divers. The sport catch was thought to rival the commercial into the 1980s. Disease, a changing environment and overharvesting took its toll and in 1997 a ban was put in effect for Southern California. Attempts to cultivate them in controlled surroundings were of limited success.

The white abalone became the first marine invertebrate to be declared an endangered species in 2001, and they are on the verge of assuming the dubious distinction of being the only marine invertebrate driven to extinction. Conventional wisdom used to be that even if they were harvested to the point of collapsing fisheries, the species itself would survive. That is no longer the case.

Yet hope springs eternal in some circles. A 2003 primer on the abalone’s history and future (revised in 2009) said:

“The abalone's near extinction in California from both human and natural causes has been countered by scientific achievement in controlling its reproduction to the point that it may be successfully maricultured providing food, shell material for jewelry, structural secrets, and seed (to replenish the wild stocks).

“We wish every species could have so many important successes.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Study Finds White Abalone on the Brink of Extinction (by Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times)

On the Road to Extinction? Population Declines of the Endangered White Abalone, Haliotis Sorenseni (by Kevin L. Stierhoff, Melissa Neuman and John L. Butler, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Abalone History and Future (Marine Science)

Status Review of White Abalone (by Alistair J. Hobday and Mia J. Tegner, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) (pdf)

White Abalone - An Extinct Possibility? (by Konstantin Karpov)

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