A Washington state local
The xʷč’iłqs, which is Lushootseed for pinto abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana), is the only abalone species found in Washington waters and has cultural and ecological significance. A type of marine snail, pinto abalone graze on rock surfaces, clearing the way for recruitment of other animals and plants and helping maintain the health of rocky reef and kelp forest habitats. They also serve as a food resource for a myriad of marine species during their life cycle, including octopuses, sunflower sea stars and sea otters. This native species is culturally important to Native Nations, Tribes and Indigenous peoples in Washington.
Photo: Adult pinto abalone, courtesy of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Once abundant in the San Juan Islands and Strait of Juan de Fuca, the pinto abalone essentially disappeared from Washington waters early this century. From 1992 to 2017, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) documented a 97% decline in abalone within 10 fixed survey stations in the San Juan Islands. In 2019, pinto abalone were formally listed as a state endangered species. Check out the FAQ below for why the population decreased as it did. Globally, pinto abalone are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species.
What’s the plan?
The Seattle Aquarium joined with Puget Sound Restoration Fund, WDFW, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, the University of Washington, Western Washington University and other partners to advance pinto abalone recovery in the Salish Sea. Together, we aim to restore local populations of this state-listed endangered species.
In June 2021, we received our first cohort of larvae and juveniles, which we are rearing in the new pinto abalone nursery at its temporary location next to the Elliott Bay window of the Aquarium before a planned release in spring 2022. At that time, the nursery will be moved to its permanent location at the Aquarium’s new animal care center to receive the next cohort.
After the animals are in our care for about one year, they will be transported and released into designated sites around the San Juan Islands or Strait of Juan de Fuca each spring.
Photo: Pinto abalone nursery at the Seattle Aquarium
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Pinto abalone and their shells have been harvested for traditional, cultural and subsistence uses by Indigenous communities for centuries. However, in 1959, WDFW authorized a recreational harvest fishery, including bag and size limits, for nontribal divers. In 1992, managers grew concerned about overharvesting and established 10 fixed survey stations in the San Juan Islands. After resurveying in 1994 and discovering further decline (along with evidence of illegal harvest), WDFW closed the fishery, making recreational harvest illegal. No commercial fishery for pinto abalone was ever authorized in Washington.
While commercial harvest of pinto abalone has never been permitted in the state, illegal commercial harvest in combination with recreational harvest likely caused the pinto abalone’s decline in Washington. To put this in perspective, 359 pinto abalone were counted at the 10 fixed survey stations in 1992. By 2017, that number had dropped to just 12—a decline of over 97%.
Pinto abalone are broadcast spawners—males and females need to be in close proximity for fertilization to occur. One theory is that their population density may have been too low for the population to recover by the time the Washington fishery was closed in 1994. Monitoring of fixed survey stations in the San Juan Islands over the past two decades has revealed a steady increase in mean shell length (evidence of an aging population made up primarily of older adults and few juveniles), which supports the idea that the remaining animals aren’t in close enough proximity to successfully reproduce. Pinto abalone in Washington also face threats from ocean acidification, reduced genetic diversity, disease, habitat loss and pollution
The Seattle Aquarium received its first round of pinto abalone in June 2021 and will release thousands of juveniles annually into the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands in late spring. This project will continue until the populations of pinto abalone in Washington are abundant, healthy and self-sustaining—meaning they demonstrate the ability to reproduce successfully and sufficiently, leading to natural recruitment throughout the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.