There is only one species of abalone native to Alaska waters, and a new project is underway to try find ways to boost its depleted numbers.
That has started with a new Abalone Working Group, which is conducting surveys of people in Southeast Alaska where pinto abalones are part of Indigenous tradition.
The reception so far has been enthusiastic, says Ashely Bolwerk, the Alaska Sea Grant fellow leading the community engagement aspect of the project.
“The story of abalone is actually really different from place to place in Southeast Alaska,” said Bolwerk. “Here in Sitka, we’ve seen a lot more abalone in recent years; other places still do not have very many. And there are places that have always had a lot of abalone and didn’t see as big of a decline as we did here in Sitka, so the story really is drastically different from place to place. As we have conversations about abalone, I think everybody’s interested in more availability of abalone, it’s such a cherished resource, both for food and for its customary and traditional uses. And just it’s a really charismatic organism.”
Bolwerk lives in Sitka and is working on a fellowship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Pinto abalones are found as far south as Baja, California and as far north as Southeast Alaska. But throughout the range, numbers have been sparse and uneven. That inconsistency extends to the Alaska populations.
Taylor White grew up in Sitka and is now a doctoral student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She’s been researching abalone in Sitka Sound for the last eight years.
White has joined the Abalone Working Group to learn more about the distribution of abalone, and their relationship to sea otters
“I am mostly focused on this next project, the next portion of this dissertation, on Sitka Sound and the effects of harvest of sea otters and abalone in the area,” White said. “And so looking at sort of illustrating that history of use in the Sound, and pairing it with some of the data that I’ve collected over the last eight years to get a better idea of the patterns and trends that we’ve been seeing in the Sound.”
Pinto abalones live for 15 to 20 years and reproduce slowly and in irregular patterns, making them inherently at risk for depletion. The species is classified as endangered in British Columbia and Washington state.
Commercial harvest of abalone in Alaska ended in 1996, although some very small-scale subsistence and personal-use harvests continue in parts of Southeast.
The working group hopes to wrap up the survey in August. Results are expected to be presented to communities over the winter. From there, the working group will consider potential rebuilding actions.
Possible responses include mariculture – either farming pinto abalones all the way to adulthood, or a more limited project that would help restore wild populations. Bolwerk says the working group expects to find direction in the responses to the survey.
“I think there’s a lot of work that could be done to to heighten the importance of abalone and just share stories about their importance,” said Bolwerk, “so that outside of our region, other folks will understand why it’s such an important resource for us. So there’s a lot of different strategies that could be employed and really, as a working group, we want to know what communities are most interested in seeing in their area.”
Additional reporting on abalone, from Yereth Rosen at the Alaska Beacon
But scarcities have left some gaps in traditional practices and knowledge, Bolwerk said.
Bolwerk was introduced to the subject as an offshoot of her research work as a graduate student working on a big project studying sea otter reintroduction off British Columbia. That led to work at Prince of Wales Island and a relationship with the tribal government in Hydaburg, where community members told her about the severe declines in their cherished resource.
“There are folks in Hydaburg who don’t harvest abalone anymore because they don’t see enough at their sites and are sort of self-managing,” she said. Some say they haven’t harvested in so long that they’re forgotten how to process the meat, she said. Additionally, “There’s a whole generation of kids who can recognize abalone shells in regalia and things like that but have no idea where the animal lives or what it looks like when it’s alive.”
Because pinto abalones reproduce slowly and in irregular patterns, they are inherently at risk for depletion, according to NOAA. The species is classified as endangered in British Columbia and Washington state, though NOAA Fisheries in 2014 rejected petitions to grant range-wide Endangered Species Act protections.
Overharvesting by people has gotten much of the blame for the recent declines across the range. Commercial harvests have been closed in various areas, including in Alaska in 1996, though some very small-scale subsistence and personal-use harvests continue in parts of Southeast.
People are not the only abalone eaters. Sea otters have also gotten some of the blame for abalone declines. However, sea otters have an important place in the ecosystem, too, in eating creatures like sea urchins that could otherwise mow down kelp forests.
The plan is for the survey element of the project to be completed in August, Bolwerk said. Results are expected to be presented to communities over the winter, she said. From there, the working group will consider potential rebuilding actions.
Possible responses include mariculture – either farming pinto abalones all the way to adulthood or a more limited project that would help restore wild populations, Bolwerk said.
Also possible are habitat improvements or changes to management of species that interact with pinto abalones. In British Columbia, for example, there is an effort to increase harvesting of sea urchins, which compete with abalones for kelp and seaweed, Bolwerk said.
Another idea is an educational campaign to raise the public profile of the multi-colored sea snails that crawl along the rocky seafloor. “Maybe some added emphasis on how important it is to local cultures and communities might help bring in more funding and create more awareness of the work that needs to be done,” Bolwerk said.