How science is saving Pinto abalone


Known for their beautiful shells and outstanding flavor, Pinto abalone (Haliotiskamtschatkana, also known as Northern abalone) have been harvested from the Salish Sea for centuries, at least until 1990 when Canada closed commercial and recreational fisheries and 1994 when Washington State closed the recreational fishery due to declining populations. Populations are estimated at less than 10% of the levels in 1978. The existing population is aging without being replaced by younger individuals.

Normally, populations rebound when harvest is closed, but this hasn't happened with abalone.

According to the Puget Sound Recovery Fund, one of the major players in abalone recovery,

Pinto abalone are considered functionally extinct in Washington waters. Natural populations have plummeted and there are too few left in the wild to reproduce successfully. We have reached the point where recovery is not likely without human intervention.

The SeaDoc Society has played a crucial role in the development of a successful hatchery program through several tightly-targeted projects, including a genetic analysis for selection of breeding stock, a study of out-planting techniques that showed us what size to outplant for best survival, and an assessment of the best habitat types for out-planting locations. SeaDoc also has funded studies to look at juvenile abalone use of urchins as a a safe hiding place from predators and the merits of aggregating wild adult abalone to improve their spawning success.

Causes of decline

Photo: J. Bouma
Photo: J. Bouma

Abalone are slow-growing, long-lived marine snails. They live in rocky nearshore habitats. Because their meat is a prized delicacy, they have been victims of over-harvest and poaching. Once their population declined, their recovery has been limited because they are broadcast spawners. This means that they cast their gametes into the water, so without a sufficient density of individuals, fertilization and ultimately reproduction don't happen. Ocean acidification, changes in salinity, and higher water temperatures may potentially affect the viability of abalone larvae or adult shell formation in the future.


Pinto abalone are federally listed as a "Species of Concern" and are listed in Washington State as candidates for listing and as a species of greatest conservation need. In 2013, petitions were submitted by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity to list pinto abalone under the Federal Endangered Species Act. In Canada, pinto abalone are listed as threatened under COSEWIC and the Canadian Species at Risk Act. They are listed as "Endangered" on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

Watch as a hatchery-raised abalone does a defensive "dance"

SeaDoc's role in recovery programs

Abalone restoration efforts involve many partners, including Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, the University of Washington School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences, Western Washington University's Shannon Point Marine Center, NOAA's Mukilteo Research Station, Baywater, Inc., the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, the Suquamish Tribe, the Elwha Tribe, the Northwest Straits Commission, and the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. SeaDoc's role has been to provide critical funding and scientific expertise to help make sure that recovery efforts have the best chance of succeeding. As with our other projects, we focus on crucial knowledge gaps that can be filled with highly-targeted, relatively small-scale projects.

Genetic analysis: Recognizing that a hatchery program would be doomed if we did not start with the correct genetics in the broodstock , in 2006 we funded scientists at the University of Washington to do a genetic analysis of the pinto abalone populations in the Salish Sea region. The study actually found that there was a cryptic sub-species of northern abalone, meaning that although all Pinto abalone look the same, there is actually a group of them that have different genetics than the rest, enabling correct selection of broodstock.  

Pilot outplanting studies: In 2007, we funded pilot outplanting efforts in order to answer the important question of how the size of juvenile abalone affected their survival rates. Scientists tagged and released 281 juvenile abalone of different sizes at multiple study sites in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They checked on these "outplanted" abalone frequently for the year following introduction and learned some very important information: abalone over 25mm had almost a sixfold better chance at survival than smaller ones. Additionally, the researchers found that abalone were more likely to survive in certain habitats. Obviously, growing the abalone larger means more time (and expense) in the hatchery, but the research showed this extra investment was critical for outplanting success.

Transboundary collaboration: Also in 2007, SeaDoc hosted a transboundary meeting with US and Canadian scientists and managers to collaborate on abalone recovery. Both countries were working on recovering Pinto abalone and this provided an opportunity to share information and establish a long-term working group to collaborate on recovery.

Aggregation studies: In 2008 SeaDoc supported a study to test the viability of bringing wild abalone from disparate locations into close proximity to facilitate successful spawning. This study showed that adult abalone move a lot and for aggregation to work, we likely need to bring them together at higher than needed densities to ensure that enough will stay close for successful reproduction.

Habitat assessment: SeaDoc funded researchers to study different potential habitats. The research showed that kelp areas with abundant crustose coralline algae on the rocky surfaces had the best potential to support abalone.

Grow out studies: In the summer of 2013 SeaDoc helped the Puget Sound Restoration Fund coordinate a project to take hatchery-reared animals and grow them out in protective cages on private docks to increase the number of juvenile abalone that could be reared to release size.

SeaDoc was involved in abalone recovery at early stages, providing essential funding and expertise so the scientists involved could have the resources to design a successful and sustainable hatchery program. In 2011, based on the success of the pilot programs, the NOAA Species of Concern Program funded a half-million dollar program to restore abalone.

How you can help

All of SeaDoc's work to help shape a successful hatchery program for abalone recovery was made possible by donations from private individuals like yourself.

You can be a part of our science-based approach to finding the answers to important questions that will help create a healthier Salish Sea.

Please consider making a donation to support the Salish Sea wildlife you care about.

Or sign up for our monthly newsletter to get timely updates on how our projects are helping protect and restore wildlife populations, from charismatic animals like killer whales to invertebrates like abalone.

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