3,200 White Abalone Released In An Effort To Beat Extinction

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In a historic race against extinction for one species, the white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni) was given a second chance at survival. In an exciting and groundbreaking conservation project, 3,200 of the giant marine snails were released in San Diego waters on November 18th. According to a California Department of Fish and Wildlife news release, this is the first time that captive-bred white abalone were introduced into the wild.

White abalone populations in the wild are at 1% of their historic levels. “Captive breeding might be the only way this population can recover,” says co-lead researcher Dr. Laura Rogers-Bennett. California abalone have had a rough go of things. Overfishing, changing ocean conditions, disease outbreak and progressive loss of habitat have decimated populations. The giant marine snails are a valuable delicacy and sport shells with shiny, mother-of-pearl interiors often used in jewelry.

“Captive breeding might be the only way this population can recover”

Dr. Laura Rogers-Bennett

In 2001 the white abalone was listed as an endangered species, however Dr. Rogers-Bennett and co-lead researcher Ian Taniguchi were part of a team of divers collecting wild white abalone for conservation efforts from 1999-2004. There are currently less than 3,000 wild white abalone estimated to be living off the California coast.

The commercial and recreational abalone fishery in south and central California was officially closed in 1997 after decades of overfishing, and serial depletion of a number of abalone species. The recreational red abalone fishery remained open along the north coast, with extensive restrictions, until 2018.

Current understanding of abalone biology, life cycle, and subsequent management strategies have improved considerably since the ruinous days of the early to late 1900s. However, white abalone stocks have not rebounded. The broadcast-spawners are considered functionally extinct, meaning that the individual abalone still existing in the wild are too far away from each other to successfully spawn and reproduce.


Breeding abalone in the Bodega Marine Laboratory is no small feat. The process requires year-round conditioning, feeding, induced spawning, and rearing of the juvenile abalone. Once the juvenile abalone became large enough to spawn, the underwater operation to release the snails was equally labor-intensive.

Measuring in at approximately 2 inches in shell length, the marine snails took 4 years to grow to this size and become sexually mature. The particularly slow-growth of abalone is one of the characteristics that makes them susceptible to overfishing. When abalone do successfully spawn in the wild, the tiny abalone that result are extremely vulnerable until they grow large enough to clamp down on the rocky substrate. This growth takes years and juvenile abalone have an affinity for hiding.

Researchers individually tagged each abalone, and placed them in temporary cages. After some acclimation time in the ocean cages, the slow-moving mollusks were released into the open ocean. In the coming months divers will continue to monitor and feed the introduced sea snails to ensure they are healthy and able to survive on their own.

If repopulation efforts are successful, researchers hope to see lab-reared and wild white abalone spawning and repopulating where they once flourished.

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