Once Common From Alaska to Mexico, Abalone Has Declined 99 Percent in Some Places
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— Conservation groups notified the National Marine Fisheries Service today of their intent to sue the agency for delaying Endangered Species Act protection for the pinto abalone, an approximately six-inch snail with an iridescent inner shell that was once common in rocky, intertidal coasts from Alaska to Baja California.
The pinto abalone is in desperate need of federal protection; throughout much of its historic range, pinto abalone populations have plummeted from 80 percent to as much as 99 percent, and numbers continue to fall along the Pacific coast.
“Overfishing nearly wiped out pinto abalone, and a warming and acidifying ocean now threatens to finish them off,” said Kiersten Lippmann, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The best way to prevent extinction is immediate protection under the Endangered Species Act.”
On June 27, 2013, NRDC submitted a petition to protect the abalone under the Endangered Species Act, and on Aug. 1, 2013, the Center submitted a similar petition. The groups filed the petitions to provide stronger protections for the pinto abalone, whose numbers have been rapidly declining due to ocean acidification, ocean warming and other climate change impacts, as well as overharvesting, illegal poaching and other harms. By law the agency had 12 months to determine whether it would provide Endangered Species Act protection for the abalone. That deadline has now passed.
“The pinto abalone needs strong and immediate protection. This will help ensure they are recovered and sufficiently robust, so that they have the best chances of surviving ocean acidification and climate change,” said Brad Sewell, a senior attorney at NRDC.
Ocean acidification and climate change are imminent threats to the pinto abalone. Ever-increasing carbon pollution makes coastal waters progressively more acidic, which stunts shell growth, decreases larval abalones’ survival rates, and has other adverse effects on reproduction, development and behavior. The increasingly acidic water increases the risk of fatal shell deformities and softens the shells of young abalones, leaving them more vulnerable to predators. Research shows that higher water temperatures and salinity changes also harm larval abalone. Finally, ocean acidification and warming waters kill off and displace the microalgae that are the young abalone’s main food source, as well as have an array of adverse effects on the species’ marine habitat.
Fisheries from Alaska to California once prized the pinto abalone for its edible foot and iridescent shell. Abalone populations were not sustainably harvested, and most fisheries crashed in the 1980s and 1990s. Although most fisheries are now closed, poachers continue to illegally hunt abalone due to their high value in the Asian market. These poachers search for the largest, most reproductively valuable abalones, further decreasing any chance the species has to recover.
Without immediate increased federal protection, it may only be a matter of time before the abalone disappears forever from our oceans.
“The pinto abalone historically played an important role in the Pacific kelp ecosystem, including as grazers of algal growth and as a food source for sea otters, octopuses, crabs and other marine animals,” said Sewell. “The loss of the species will have broader ecological consequences, in addition to being a tragedy in its own right.”
“Oceans are getting more and more acidic, especially in the shallow coastal waters where pinto abalones live,” said Lippmann. “Carbon emissions threaten these shellfish from multiple directions all at once, disrupting the coastal food web and irreparably altering abalone’s life history.”
The Center and NRDC have 60 days after the filing of their intent to sue before they are able to bring suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service in federal court.