Will climate change ruin the white abalone’s last chance at survival?

Saving endangered species in a changing ocean

What if, after bringing a species back from the edge of extinction, you return it to an environment that’s so changed, it may no longer accept it?

As climate change is creating warmer, acidifying oceans with less oxygen and more uncertainty, that’s the challenge now facing a group of California researchers trying to save the endangered white abalone.

Kristin Aquilino, an assistant project scientist at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, is in charge of the largest population of endangered white abalone that exists in the world.

There’s some pressure with that.

Science at 5 a.m.

It’s 5 a.m. inside the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif. In a few hours, it will be full of summer vacationers and busloads of children. But for now, it’s dark and quiet. Eel-shaped shadows slither past in tanks of water backlit in blue. Never-ending water pipes snake around the lab’s ceiling, humming.

Outside, past huge tanks holding thousands of gallons of water, Aquilino is holding a wild white abalone.

About the size of a cereal bowl, it has a reddish-purple shell with a peachy white underbelly. In the ocean, it could easily be mistaken for a rock.

UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay, Calif. Photo credit: Joe Proudman

The captive breeding program Aquilino manages in close coordination with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is essentially a specialized fertility clinic for this endangered marine snail. A consortium of six agencies, institutions and nonprofits work together to raise and spawn captive white abalone with the hope of one day returning their populations to the wild.

“This is special,” she said, taking a moment to appreciate the animal, beholding its rarity.

Then she gets straight to work assessing its gonads.

“I think this is a male,” she said.

Wild abalone can’t find each other

White abalone’s historic range stretched from Point Conception in California south to Baja California in Mexico. Now, scientists are lucky to find even one along all that coast. Prized and overfished for their tender meat, they became the first marine invertebrate to be listed as an endangered species in 2001. Wild populations are now unable to find each other in the ocean to reproduce, making them effectively sterile.

Today at the aquarium, Aquilino and her colleagues are attempting to spawn two wild abalone with four animals from the captive population, which needs all the new wild white abalone genes it can get.

The team has a proven track record of raising and spawning white abalone, primarily at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, just north of San Francisco.

There are likely a few thousand white abalone in the wild, but there are tens of thousands in the lab. “This is both really scary for the wild population, but also presents an amazing opportunity to save them,” said Aquilino.

A pampered life

Captive white abalone in the program lead a pampered and oh-so-California life of spa treatments, organic food and group sex. An antibiotic bath cleanses the abalone of bacteria. An exfoliating waxing treatment made from organic beeswax and coconut oil prevents organisms from boring into their shells. And researchers in the lab grow dulse — a nutritious red seaweed — for the white abalone to eat, in addition to the less nutritious kelp they prefer.

Combined with the lab’s temperature-controlled, nutrient-rich seawater and “mood lighting” designed to encourage spawning, these techniques have grown increasingly effective over the years. March of 2017 marked the most successful spawning attempt yet, with 25,000 new white abalone created.

Overlaying all of that scientific precision is the infectious, obvious affection Aquilino shows for the animals. “Aren’t they cute?” she’ll often say to people seeing them for the first time.

“I view them as an extension of my family,” she said, which includes her 2-year-old daughter and her husband, whom she met while doing red abalone surveys in Northern California. “We have abalone shells all over our house. My engagement ring is abalone pearl. My daughter will inherit these things. Will they be relics of the past, where she’ll say, ‘oh yeah, my parents talked about abalone diving. That was a part of my history.’ Or can it be part of her present and future?”

Aquilino looks forward to the day when the team can begin to reintroduce white abalone to the wild, which could happen within the next few years.

Ocean no longer hospitable?  

But what if — after all the organic coconut waxing, the careful science and nurturing hands — these white abalone return to an ocean that is no longer hospitable to them?

“I think about that a lot,” Aquilino said.

The ocean has changed since white abalone were listed as endangered 16 years ago. Excess carbon dioxide from fossil fuels has triggered a cascade of consequences: warming water, ocean acidification, low amounts of oxygen in the ocean, rising sea levels.

Joe Proudman / UC Davis A year-old white abalone at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory on May 8, 2017. Assistant project scientist, Kristin Aquilino, has worked to save the white abalone from extinction, successfully breeding more white abalone at Bodega Marine Laboratory than are estimated to be living in the wild.
Joe Proudman / UC Davis A year-old white abalone at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory on May 8, 2017. Assistant project scientist, Kristin Aquilino, has worked to save the white abalone from extinction, successfully breeding more white abalone at Bodega Marine Laboratory than are estimated to be living in the wild.

A 1-year-old white abalone at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. Abalone that are this age can vary widely in size, though it’s not an indication of their health. Photo credit: Joe Proudman

Shellfish — including mussels, oysters, and abalone — are having trouble building their shells and reproducing. Harmful algal blooms spurred by warming waters have triggered die-offs of marine life and produced toxins that closed the West Coast’s crab fishery during the 2015-16 season. Excessive warm water is also killing coral reefs, with massive bleaching killing an unprecedented 50 percent of corals in the Great Barrier Reef in 2016.

Reintroducing an endangered species to this environment is no small task.

The abalone team’s strategy is four-pronged: First, create as many white abalone as possible. Second, introduce as much genetic diversity to that population as possible. Third, carefully scout for the ideal location, technique, season and time to release them. And fourth, look to genetics to help ensure that the white abalone they are breeding are the most resilient they can be to future ocean acidification conditions.

How do they do that?

That’s where Dan Swezey, a research associate at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, comes in.

Raising abalone in acidifying waters

Eight hours north of Long Beach, in foggy Bodega Bay, Swezey is holding a red abalone on his finger. It’s a year-and-a-half old, about the size of a silver dollar, and it’s a survivor.

Swezey raised it in a lab experiment that mimicked future ocean conditions — elevated levels of carbon dioxide associated with ocean acidification. Most of its siblings either didn’t make it or grew very slowly. A sibling in a neighboring tank — the same age and raised in the same conditions — is about the size of a pea.

What does the silver-dollar abalone have that the pea-sized abalone does not? What makes the larger one more able to withstand the effects of ocean acidification and climate change?

The answer is not yet clear, but Swezey and his colleagues are trying to figure it out. Genetics likely has a lot to do with it.

“Anything you can do to figure out what it is about that one guy, that one abalone that survived that stress and grew normally, is really important not only for aquaculture and the shellfish industry, but also for white abalone,” Swezey said.

If researchers can identify the inheritable genetics that make certain red abalone more resilient to ocean acidification, then scientists like Aquilino can look for it in white abalone. White abalone with the same genetic marker could be selected as the key parents, or broodstock, to spawn thousands of other, ideally more resilient white abalone to place into the wild.

Sweet release

Aquilino hopes to be there when it comes time to outplant the white abalone. She thinks it will feel somewhat like a parent sending a child off to college.

“I’ll probably be wondering what they’re doing…thinking, ‘Don’t go to that shady bar with that octopus. Stay out of that little den. Find a nice crevice of your own.’”

But practically, Aquilino said she’ll be thinking about how she can go back to the lab and make more white abalone that are able to withstand the stresses of their new wild life.

“We can do everything we can to make as many as possible, to make them as healthy as possible and as resilient as possible,” she said. “But at some point we put them out there, and they’re going to have to survive or not…reproduce or not. My hope is we can release a lot. This isn’t going to depend on one animal. This is going to depend on thousands of animals.”

Assistant project scientist, Kristin Aquilino, and research associate, Daniel Swezey, inspect 1-year-old white abalone at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. They’re working together to breed white abalone that can withstand the pressure of climate change.  Photo caption: Joe Proudman

From Iowa to abalone

Aquilino grew up in Iowa, studying alfalfa before studying the ocean. She’d never heard of abalone until her mid-20s, much less eaten, held or spawned one, or ever dreamed of saving the white abalone species.

Aquilino is often asked why anyone should care about abalone.

She points to their ecological importance in maintaining the ocean’s kelp forest; their economic potential (the red abalone sport fishery in California alone was worth $24-$44 million in 2016); their cultural importance for indigenous Americans of the West Coast. There’s also abalones’ value as a reportedly delicious protein source as the world aims to feed a growing population with fewer resources and declining wild fish stocks.

But ultimately, her motivation to help save endangered white abalone is a human one.

“Becoming a mom, the idea that I want to sustain the quality of human life for future generations is so much more poignant when my own genes are involved,” she said. “I want my daughter to play in the woods. I want her to enjoy fresh produce and fresh seafood. I want her to go fishing with me and her dad. Already, we’re worried about the next season for abalone diving. What will happen when she’s old enough to put on a wetsuit and go out there on her own?”

Spawning attempt

Back at the aquarium, the spawning attempt is not going so well. The white abalone just aren’t responding after about three hours of soaking in their “love potion” of hydrogen peroxide and seawater used to help induce spawning.

“I don’t think they’re going to do it today,” Aquilino said through a grimace. The team holds out for a couple of more hours to make sure. In the end, it’s a no-go.

It’s disappointing. There will be no abalone babies on board for the return trip to Bodega Marine Lab.

Yet, there are no wasted efforts. This is science. The group takes what they learn, continues to refine and is already planning future spawning efforts. They just came off of their most successful spawning attempt ever this past spring, they remind themselves, producing tens of thousands of white abalone. This is a hiccup.

‘We can do this’

But there are real potential catastrophes that could mean the end of the species — a failed pump, a funding shift, a major earthquake.

Of all the species we’re working to save throughout the world, this is a very tangible one,” she said. “We can do this.”

So she thinks about better things. Her favorite thought? That one day her white abalone can swap their overhead lab pipes for towering kelp forests.

As a kid, scouting for tadpoles in Iowa’s streams, Aquilino far preferred the outdoors to the lab, and she still does. She wants for white abalone what she wants for herself: To get them out of the lab and into the wild, where they belong.

Learn more about climate science at the University of California, Davis.

Author: Kat Kerlin

Video Producers: John Mounier, Joe Proudman and Tim McConville

Headline image photo credit: Joe Proudman

Sources: National Shellfisheries Association “Journal of Shellfish Research,” California Fish and Game, NOAA Fisheries, UC Davis Bodega Marine LaboratoryNOAA, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Geographic