The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is proposing to add Pinto abalone to the state’s endangered species list.
Pinto abalone are a species of marine snails with a distribution ranging from Baja California, Mexico, to Alaska. It is the only abalone species found in Washington state, British Columbia and Alaska, and therefore is referred to as the Northern abalone, the WDFW states.
The state agency is seeking public comment on the proposal and will hold a meeting at 6 p.m. Dec. 4 at the Northwest Maritime Center as part of the Jefferson County Marine Resource Committee’s regular business meeting. It will include a presentation by Puget Sound Shellfish Policy Coordinator Chris Eardley and WDFW marine research scientist Hank Carson.
The presentation will include the natural history of the Pinto abalone, the history of the fishery, the current population status and actions WDFW has taken so far to help the population, according to the Marine Resource Committee.
“The MRC is involved because our focus is protecting and restoring marine habitats and species,” MRC committee member Cheryl Lowe said.
The Puget Sound Restoration Fund states 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,” the Restoration Fund website states. “We have reached the point where recovery is not likely without human intervention.”
Even though a commercial fishery for harvesting Pinto abalone was never authorized in Washington, the species has been recreationally harvested for many years. In 1959, the Pinto abalone were classified as shellfish in Washington, and a daily harvest possession limit of three per person was imposed. Throughout the years, more restrictions were added to the fishery, but the populations continued to decline, the WDFW states. Fishing for Pinto abalone was closed in 1994 and has remained closed since.
“They’ve been on the endangered species candidate list since 1998 as a species of concern,” said Carson, who added that listing them as endangered instead of just a species of concern helps bring more recognition to the dire nature of the abalone population. “Adding them to the list will correctly signal their status to non-scientists.”
Abalone function as “space clearers” on rocks in the Puget Sound, Carson said. Their grazing habits help provide space for other algae to grow. They also are an important step on the food chain, as they are prey to crabs, fish, octopus, sea stars, otters and, at one time, humans.
“They represent an interesting story,” said Ali Redman, aquarist at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. “While they’re an important prey species for a lot of animals, you can’t really narrow down the importance of the abalone in the Puget Sound because, more and more, we’re finding out how everything is tied together.”
Ongoing and historical studies in the San Juan Archipelago, a region of historically healthy abalone populations conducted by WDFW, have shown a 97 percent decline in surveyed abalone population abundance between 1992 and 2017.
Despite the continued decline, there are many efforts to restore the population of Pinto abalone in the Puget Sound.
One of those efforts is happening in Port Townsend at the Marine Science Center aquarium.
In partnership with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, Redman and other volunteers and staff members at the Marine Science Center are raising Pinto abalone to research and release into the Puget Sound.
In small pools at the back of the Marine Science Center aquarium, located at the end of the wharf at Fort Worden, tiny abalone swim around, eating small pieces of kelp, overseen by visitors and staff.
“We’re big fans of abalone here,” Redman said. “There’s something about working with them. You get the sense that these snails have a personality.”
Redman said the restoration of the abalone is different from other animal conservation efforts because their habitat in the Puget Sound already is there and doesn’t need to be restored for them to survive when released.
Redman said the WDFW proposal to add the abalone to the endangered species list is a good opportunity to gain more attention to restoration efforts, as well as more possibilities for funding and enforcement of harvesting rules.
At the Marine Science Center, visitors can look at fully grown Pinto abalone in the aquarium tanks to learn about their history and their role in the environment.
“That’s why we have them here,” Redman said. “We are able to share both the sad story about overfishing and the hopeful story of what we can do to help.”
To learn more about the upcoming meeting on Pinto abalone, visit www.jeffersonmrc.org.