LOS ANGELES — The white abalone, a tasty Southern California mollusk whose numbers have dropped from the millions in the 1970s to perhaps a few thousand, officially became an endangered species Tuesday.
The listing by the National Marine Fisheries Service will not affect fishermen because the state has banned taking the species since 1996. But environmentalists are hopeful the decision will bring in more funding to help the abalone’s numbers rebound.
The decision means federal agencies must act to help keep the white abalone from going extinct, but it may be too late to save it, said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental group that filed a petition asking for the listing in 1999.
“Twenty years ago if this thing been listed, our options for saving it would’ve been much better,” Suckling said. “At this point, I am not at all optimistic we can pull these things back from the brink.”
Shellfishermen around the Channel Islands, off the coast near Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, began diving for white abalone in the late 1960s. Commercial landings of the species peaked at more than 144,000 pounds – or about 86,000 abalone – in 1972. But harvesting of the mollusk collapsed just a few years later – in 1978, commercial divers hauled in less than 5,000 pounds.
Studies once estimated the white abalone population at about 2 million, with one estimate as high as 4 million. Now the NMFS estimates the population at about 1,600 to 2,500.
“Lots of them were taken, and now the density of animals in the wild is extremely low,” said NMFS fisheries biologist Craig Wingert.
With abalone thinly scattered along the coast, it’s extremely hard for them to reproduce. It becomes very difficult for sperm released by a male mollusk to reach eggs if the male is more than a yard or two from a female.
NMFS is looking at two options for recovery: breeding abalone in a lab and releasing them, or moving wild abalone closer to each other to improve their chances of reproducing.
A multiagency team focused on restoring the abalone announced last month that it successfully spawned the species in a lab, creating more than 6 million eggs. In three to four years, the Abalone Restoration Consortium plans to begin releasing about 10,000 adult abalone a year into the ocean.
NMFS declined to declare critical habitat for the abalone, saying it could actually hurt the species’ prospects because poachers would know where the mollusk could most likely be found. The Center for Biological Diversity – which has often sued to establish critical habitat for endangered species – had requested such a designation, but Suckling said this is “most certainly not a clear-cut case” in which critical habitat is necessary.
The listing was the first of a marine mollusk, but probably won’t be the last. The black abalone, another California species, is on NMFS’s list of endangered species candidates, and Suckling said his Tucson, Ariz.-based center plans to ask for a listing of that species as well.