A newly collected female wild white abalone releases eggs during the captive breeding program’s annual spawning event. This was the first new genetic input in the captive population for 14 years. Photo taken for CDFW by M. Ready
At nearly 130 feet underwater, CDFW abalone researcher Dr. Laura Rogers-Bennett didn’t have much time. Her dive computer told her it was time to ascend, which meant that she would have to stop searching for the endangered white abalone hiding in the waving fields of red and gold gorgonians.
Reluctantly, she watched the beautiful scene drop away below her as she kicked slowly upwards. She moved through the towering elk kelp towards her safety stop, a precious white abalone kept solidly in her grasp. On that trip, back in 2004, Rogers-Bennett and Ian Taniguchi, another CDFW abalone expert, and a team of other scientist divers collected 21 critically endangered white abalone off the deep reefs in the Channel Islands. This collection trip was conducted in an effort to save the species before they disappeared from the wild, and to create a captive breeding program that could bring this important and iconic species back from the brink of extinction.
Fourteen years later, the white abalone Captive Breeding Program is a thriving reality, thanks to the vision and hard work of a committed team of scientists from the White Abalone Consortium (WARC). Those 21 animals that Rogers-Bennett helped to collect in the Channel Islands have now produced thousands of descendants in captivity. The program is so successful, in fact, that it is now producing more animals than it has space to raise. Now, the next step is for WARC and CDFW scientists to perfect methods to release these captive bred animals back into the wild.
A huge challenge for CDFW and the WARC is to ensure that the captive-bred animals stand the best chance for survival in the wild – and one of the greatest obstacles could lie within the abalones’ own DNA. Because the entire captive-bred population stems from only 21 animals, the genetic diversity of the captive program is limited. One of the main factors that influence how a population of animals will react to stress is how genetically diverse the individuals are from one another.
In the past, wild, healthy white abalone populations had large numbers of individuals to reproduce with. This created a vast number of family lineages and resulted in an expansive genetic pool. A population with diverse genetic parentage strengthens the overall population by ensuring that there will be a diversity of responses among the individuals. For example, some stresses, like disease or environmental change, may affect certain individuals while others maybe be more genetically suited to defend against those threats. If the population faces a major disease outbreak, some individuals will likely survive, enabling the populations to restore itself over time. But if a population lacks this genetic diversity due to limited parentage, the entire population could succumb to the disease.
The solution is to introduce new animals into the captive breeding population in order to diversify the gene pool and create animals vigorous enough to thrive in the wild. Yet that’s a trickier proposition than one might think, because of their endangered status. Even when evidence strongly suggests that there has been zero reproduction, researchers follow very strict guidelines so as not to disrupt potentially viable populations. For this reason, WARC and CDFW spent years monitoring reproduction of wild white abalone populations, until they were absolutely certain that the animals were not reproducing in the wild.
In 2017, the WARC was given a permit by NOAA to collect wild animals for the captive breeding program. The following May, when conditions were right, Rogers-Bennett and the WARC team of scientists returned to the Channel Islands on the first white abalone collecting trip in more than a decade. WARC divers gathered in the spring sun on the deck of the research vessel Garibaldi to discuss the day’s dives, which would be to nearly 120 feet. Everyone was focused, but a cautious optimism hung in the air. Encountering the incredibly rare white abalone was a long shot, but two individuals had been spotted in the area within the last year.
Alongside her team, Rogers-Bennett descended through the water column, watching as the ocean floor came into focus below her. As she got closer, she could just make out the familiar shape of an abalone. She assumed it was another, more common species of abalone, but as she got lower she recognized the unmistakable markings of a white abalone. She had landed directly on top of one!
Since the beginning of 2017, 10 animals have been collected by WARC scientists and transported to their facility in Bodega Bay. This is the first time in 14 years that scientists will be able to add new genetics to the captive breeding program. Dr. Kristin Aquilino, Director of the UC Davis Captive Breeding Program for the WARC, was able to include a newly collected female white abalone into the 2017 annual captive breeding spawn. It takes time before wild animals are able to integrate into the program, but researchers hope that the newly collected animals will participate in the next white abalone broodstock spawn.
With the new genetics from the wild abalone being introduced to the captive breeding program, and restorative stocking studies underway, the future for this species is looking brighter all the time. Through the dedication of a brilliant team of scientists, policymakers and an engaged public, the WARC is hopeful that one day the white abalone will resume its ecological role in the deep reef ecosystems of the beautiful Southern California kelp forests.
Please stay tuned for more updates about the white abalone and our other abalone restoration work in California!
CDFW Photos. Top Photo: CDFW diver Ian Tanigucci takes notes before collecting a wild white abalone (in the foreground) in 2017. This is one of 10 white abalone collected from the wild to be integrated into the captive breeding program at Bodega Marine Lab. These newly collected animals will provide a new and much needed source of genetics for the captive bred white abalone populations.