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Of all of the world’s abalone species, the white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni) has the sweetest, whitest, most delectable meat…or so I am told: I have never eaten one.  Indeed, it is increasingly unlikely that anyone will eat one again.  A horrible thing happened to the white abalone in the seventies (and to lots of other people and things too, but we need to stay focused).   A commercial fishery came into existence and, although it lasted for less than a decade 30 years ago, it seems to have dealt a nearly fatal blow to the white abalone.

White abalone are herbivorous gastropods which are not exactly white—they have an orange foot with tan sensory tentacles (!).  They are herbivores which live on rocks surrounded by sand channels at about 25-30 meters of depth (80-100 feet).  They can be found in Southern California and the northern parts of the Baja peninsula.  White abalone are broadcast spawners.  They release…uh, their gametes into open water in large numbers.  The abalone fishery of the seventies and early eighties thinned their numbers so drastically that they do not exist in proximity to each other.  White abalone live a maximum of about forty years, so the last natural specimens are dying off without reproducing.  They are broadcasting their genetic information into the open ocean with no complimentary abalones nearby to produce offspring.

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The NOAA is working with various partners to save the abalone.  The administration and various mollusk lovers and malacologists have created a captive breeding program at the University of California-Davis Bodega Marine Lab.  Although they have successfully spawned enormous numbers of white abalones, the larval shellfish do not do well in captivity and the species’ ultimate survival remains an open question.  Fortunately, in pursuing the goal of saving the white abalone, the scientists have learned a great deal about abalone disease treatment and prevention and how to maintain water suitable for the young sea snails.   The whole sad episode seems to indicate several troubling things about our (in) bility to manage marine resources—and yet, through extraordinary countermeasures we have forestalled complete disaster.  I wonder if the white abalone will manage to come back based on all we have learned.

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