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Innovative Abalone Spawning Technique to Aid Restoration

Last month, a group of biologists tested a novel approach for abalone restoration in California. NOAA staff, along with researchers from Occidental College and The Bay Foundation, traveled to Catalina Island to find green abalone that were ready to spawn. The spawning was going to take place that day—right there on the boat deck.

The Decline of Abalone
Abalone once supported huge commercial and sport fisheries. Due to overfishing and disease, abalone now face extinction—white abalone is officially listed as an endangered species. Despite a ban on nearly all abalone fishing, some populations continue to decline or are slow to recover.

Scientists have attempted controlled spawning in laboratories, where they have higher chances for success. But, this approach requires the permanent removal of wild abalone from their natural habitat and also proved logistically and financially difficult.

Testing a New Method
When our biologists set out that day, they hoped to find another option for abalone restoration. The ocean was unusually clear, warm and calm, allowing divers to collect 30 adult green abalone.  They separated the males and females into buckets filled with seawater, and then added chemicals to induce spawning.

The anxious crew huddled around the buckets for an hour. Suddenly, one male released a puff of sperm—potentially enough to fertilize eggs! Just thirty minutes later, a female began to release eggs. The biologists erupted into action, combining the contents of the male and female buckets, and returning the abalone to the sea. Back at the dock, it was confirmed: the abalone eggs had been fertilized!

Looking Ahead
This was a first step to developing a technique that will aid in restoration of abalone in the wild. “This approach could open the door to a whole new way of thinking about abalone restoration,” said David Witting, a biologist from the NOAA Restoration Center.

The ultimate goal is to have enough healthy young abalone to release into the ocean in 2015—to begin rebuilding their populations for the future.

Posted November 10, 2014

Diver removing wild abalone.
Credit: Ariadne Reynolds, The Bay Foundation

Abalone researchers returning abalone to the reef.

Credit: Jonathon Williams, Vantuna Research Group