Let’s face it, a red abalone isn’t likely to win many awards for prettiest creature in the sea. Sure it’s empty, rainbow-colored shell is nice to throw your spare change in, but when occupied, that snail-looking foot thing is pretty gnarly.
Yet this prized seafood delicacy commands high prices on restaurant tables and fish markets. And with increasingly acidic oceans threatening their population — the study going on at U.C. Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory has important bearings on the seafood industry.
“There is reason to be concerned,” said BML researcher Daniel Swezey. “In addition to kind of mortality, we’re seeing they’re smaller, they’re developing more slowly.”
Scientists predict the world’s oceans will become vastly more acidic in the next 40 years due to pollution — with the impact already affecting oysters, sea urchins and coral. Researchers have seen red abalone that have suffered in areas where acid levels are already elevated.
“We’re simulating conditions,” Swezey said, “in terms of the acidity of the future ocean in the laboratory to look at red abalone development.”
Ground zero for the lab’s experiments is a dimly lit concrete room where the din of water spouts filling dozens of specimen-filled vessels can drown out a regular human voice. A tray is filled with small glass containers — each containing 300 specks which are the baby abalone.
“They’re like little bread crumbs at this stage of life,” Swezey said lifting one of the containers.
One set of the containers represents current conditions in oceans. Another represents what scientists think the ocean’s acidity level will be in about 40 years. The study has focused on abalone during the first three months of life because that’s when they appear to be most susceptible to atmospheric conditions.
“They’re just not as healthy,” said researcher Sara Boles, peering at a sample of a future ocean abalone through a microscope. “They don’t look like a traditional abalone.”
Swezey said the curious thing is there are some areas in the wild where abalone exposed to higher acidity conditions have fared fine — leading to the theory that some red abalone are genetically wired with the ability to resist more extreme conditions. Swezy said that raises the possibility of increasing populations by figuring out which ones posses that DNA code and breed them in abalone farms.
“We’re also finding that there is some rays of hope,” Swezey said, “and some genetic diversity out there where some families do better than others.”
Red abalone have increasingly struggled over the years. This year California wildlife managers shortened the popular recreational abalone diving season by two months because of a dwindling abalone population. The pastime is a popular annual tradition along the Sonoma and Mendocino coastlines.
“Most recent we’ve had some pretty large declines in their wild population,” Boles said. “So it’s of interest to preserve the populations that are still doing well.”
The scientists said Northern California could be hit even harder by rising acidification because of its unique sea floor topography and currents.
“In Northern California we naturally see more acidic conditions normally,” Swezey said. “A lot of the scientific models show that things are going to change very quickly in Northern California.”
In a large tank, Boles pushed aside strands of seafood to reveal a cluster of large abalone clinging to the side. She pried one off the side of the tank and held it up, its large foot-like body morphing slowly like some kind of space alien.
“Some of them they do have personalities,” Boles said, “if you could say so much about an abalone.”
Of course personality and looks can only get one so far in life. The abalone have another secret weapon that has boosted interest in saving their dwindling numbers.
“They’re pretty tasty as well,” Boles said.