Inside a small laboratory outbuilding in Bodega Bay, a squadron of lights cast a purple haze over a roomful of tanks, which gurgled incessantly in a watery chaos. Kristin Aquilino peeled back a lid revealing a cluster of mid-sized abalone shells clinging to the wall of a plastic bucket.
“These definitely represent the future of this program,” Aquilino said surveying the room of tanks.
In many ways, the roomful of tanks is akin to an aquatic rescue mission, allowing federally endangered white abalone a chance to get back on their feet and avoid what was certain to be an extremely stark future.
“These animals are really right on the brink of extinction,” Aquilino said while closing the lid.
White abalone were once a popular seafood delicacy, the precious take of divers and fishermen mainly along the Central and Southern California coastline.
“Families, they’d go out diving and collecting abalone together,” said Gary Cherr, director of the Bodega Marine Laboratory, “and white abalone was really important.”
But their popularity proved to be their demise — commercial overfishing in the '70s, and a rampant disease a decade later reduced their numbers to a paltry sum.
“We think there’s only a few thousand left in the wild,” Cherr said. “The population modeling suggests that within 10 to 15 years they could be truly extinct.”
In 2001, white abalone became the first marine invertebrate added to the Federally Endangered list. A federal research program attempted to breed them in captivity but failed because of disease.
Three years ago, researchers at UC Davis’ Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory took over the breeding effort.
“There hadn’t been any successful captive reproduction in a decade,” Aquilino said.
The Bodega Bay set out with a stock of 12 wild white abalone and began putting extensive research into the potential for diseases. From the initial dozen brood stock, the group successfully bred 120 white abalone by 2013. A year later the tanks held thousands, the youngest as small as a tiny speck - the largest about the size of a fist.
“So just in three years we’ve really increased our success,” Aquilino said.
But the true gauge of success may be several years away - the researchers expect if all goes well, they could end-up with tens of thousands more abalone in the next few years. Then the real work begins.
“The goal is to restore the wild population,” Aquilino said, “by putting enough animals out in the wild that they start to breed on their own successfully.”
The potential success of active breeding could raise the possibility of commercial white abalone farming, similar to what is currently exists for red abalone, which fishermen are allowed to take on a limited basis.
Cherr said the potential to resurrect a vanishing marine species could also raise hopes for other imperiled species.
“Just knowing that a species that is right on the verge of extinction,” Cherr said, “that we could actually bring them back and know that they’re out there is really important.”
Of course, the ultimate irony would be that a truly successful white abalone restoration effort could someday put them back on the table in some limited offering, a fact Aquilino happily acknowledges.
“My ultimate measure of success might be able to try one day,” she laughed. “I hear they’re really delicious.”