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Rare Shellfish: Restoring Abalone to California

Oct 09, 2015 05:24 PM EDT

In the 1950s and 1960s, many Californians could walk down to a beach and harvest abalones -- succulent snails in big iridescent or curled shells -- then steam them in a beach bonfire and have a great meal. Imagine a cultural rite of cracking open shells and eating toothsome fish--right up there with the checked-tablecloth, beer-and-crackers experience of hanging out over blue crab in Maryland or lobster in New England--and you have the experience that is gone to West Coasters now because of overharvesting.

There may be hope, however. Marine biologist Nancy Caruso is preparing to launch a 10-year abalone restoration effort very soon. Based in Laguna Beach, Calif., she previously led a very successful effort to restore a kelp forest off Orange County, and is currently engaged in sea-bass restoration efforts there. Although abalone did not respond well to previous programs' restoration efforts, Caruso learned in a study that when she raised abalone from spawn and allowed them to reach 5 or 10 years old before placing them in the ocean, they had a 40 percent chance of survival. This beats previous efforts, she says. Caruso's findings will soon be published in the journal California Fish and Wildlife.

In order to launch an abalone-restoration project next year, Caruso is aiming to raise $2 million. This will cover project costs for the next 10 years. Starting in November this year, she will use her state permit to collect abalone brood stock from the Pacific Ocean. Then a farm in Northern California will spawn and raise the abalone for a year. After that, the young abalone will be placed in raising tanks in Southern California schools.

Meanwhile, in order to prevent including her own salary in the fundraising effort, Caruso is working at various ecology trip-leader and national-park naturalist jobs. She will lead a geology and ecology trip to Alaska, and take a group to Baja to meet gray whales that gather around the boats and share their young for petting. She'll lead a children's camping trip to Joshua Tree National Monument to learn about more ecology and geology. "Those are aimed at helping me pay for all the underwater stuff. Ironically, not a lot of foundations pay for underwater restoration. It's kind of a unique niche," observes Caruso.

As the 10-year project helps to restore abalone to the Orange County area, huge numbers of the public will also be educated by helping and experiencing the shellfish up close. "We'll be educating millions of people, because adults and kids will see them, and kids will tell their parents about them. Hopefully a new abalone population will result, and many people will have awareness of that," says Caruso.

Maybe later California and the West Coast can get out their Saltines and checked tablecloths and chow down on some abalone. At the very least, maybe a generation will see more of them living on rocks, not just empty shells on the beach.

If you'd like to donate to the Get Inspired! Green Abalone Restoration Project, go here and click on "Donate" in the left menu. 

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