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South Coast Scientists Undertake Conservation Efforts To Save Endangered Marine Animal

Scientists on the South Coast are working to bring back an endangered marine animal from the brink of extinction. There were perhaps millions but now only several thousand white abalone remain in the ocean. A new exhibit is highlighting researchers’ conservation efforts to save white abalone.

Water runs in four long, narrow white troughs that contain 40,000 larvae or newly hatched white abalone, which are a type of marine snail. Only 1% are expected to become adults, while the rest won’t survive.

“They’re too small to see. They’re probably living down in the crevices. But hopefully they’ll grow big enough that we can actually add them to that habitat over there where we have more of our white abalone,” says Thomas Wilson, the Live Collections and Husbandry Manager at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center on Stearns Wharf.

This installation is called “Saving the White Abalone.” The display features these troughs of larvae, along with a written explanation about the marine animal’s life cycle and the Sea Center’s work to save the species from extinction.

It educates visitors like Daniel Matas.

“I think it’s something that we should do more and more, especially with the native species we have or we don’t see anymore,” he says.

In 2001, white abalone became the first marine invertebrates to be listed as endangered in the U.S.

“That is the result of over-exploitation in the form of harvesting white abalone for human consumption. They’re said to be a delicacy; have the most tender meat of the abalone,” Wilson says.

He says between 1969 and 1976, about 99% of their population was removed from the wild.

“They haven’t been able to recover from that exploitation,” Wilson says.

So, a recovery plan was born. The Sea Center is one of many groups – including UC Santa Barbara and the Marine Science Institute -- that are working together to save the species through a captive breeding program. The idea is that the only hope to replenish the population is to spawn them in captivity with a long-term goal of eventually releasing large numbers back into their native habitats.

Wilson points to a tank filled with several adult, male white abalone that each appear as a large, flat snail with a brownish oval-shaped shell.

“So, these are the animals that we would typically try to spawn,” he says.

It involves placing them in buckets and adding a bath of filtered sea water and hydrogen peroxide, which induces the spawning process.

“If a female spawns, we would transport the sperm to that facility. They would then mix those gametes at optimal ratio to increase the success of reproduction,” Wilson says.

The Sea Center has about 70 adult white abalone that were spawned through this process.

“We care for them. We take yearly assessment data, which is growth measurements. Do basic anatomy checks,” Wilson says.

And they feed them giant kelp about three times a week.

“We actually target feed the animal. So, we put the kelp blade right in front of them. And hopefully they respond and will lift up and reach out. And then they’ll grab that kelp blade and bring it into their mouth,” Wilson says.

Breeding and caring for these white abalone is the first step in this recovery plan. The next will be to send a huge number into the ocean in order to restore the population.

“Creating a diverse and abundant ecosystem builds a strong base for us all and the planet in general,” says Sea Center Director Rich Smalldon.

The new installation is intended to bring awareness, as Kim Garcia sees firsthand.

“I think it’s amazing that they are spending so much time trying to bring them back to life and breed them and take good care of them. They’re good for our oceans, which is good for our earth, which is good for our future,” she says.

It’s even a lesson for some of the youngest visitors, like Garcia’s 6-year-old daughter, Summer.

“I think it’s really nice of them to try to help the environment instead of people trying to kill them and stuff," she says.