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White Abalone (Haliotis sorenseni)

Status | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution | Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview | Taxonomy | Key Documents | More Info

Status

ESA Endangered - throughout its range (California and Mexico)

White abalone are one of NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight          

Species Description

Weight:
1.7 pounds (0.8 kg) on average
Length:
5-8 inches (13-20 cm) on average, but can grow to about 10 inches long (25 cm)
Appearance:
thin, oval shell with an orange "foot"
Lifespan:
35-40 years
Diet:
algae
Behavior:
they reproduce by releasing their eggs and sperm into the surrounding water to be fertilized (broadcast spawning)
 

White abalone are herbivorous gastropods (the same taxonomic class as snails and slugs) that live in rocky ocean waters.

Their shell is oval-shaped and very thin. The bottom of their feet is orange, and the epipodium (a sensory extension of their foot that has tentacles) is a mottled orange-tan. They are generally 5-8 inches (13-20 cm) long, but can grow to as big as 10 inches (25 cm). They weigh about 1.7 pounds (0.8 kg) on average.

White abalone reproduce by releasing their eggs and sperm into the surrounding water, known as broadcast spawning. If fertilized, the eggs hatch after only one day, but high concentrations of sperm are required in order for an egg to be fertilized. Therefore, groups of adult male and female abalone are necessary for successful fertilization to occur. Like many gastropods, white abalone have a complex life cycle involving larval stages. Fertilized eggs hatch into larvae. These larvae eventually change into the adult form and settle from the plankton to a hard substrate.

Habitat

White abalone are found in open low and high relief rock or boulder habitat that is interspersed with sand channels. Sand channels may be important for the movement and concentration of drift macroalgae and red algae, upon which white abalone are known to feed. White abalone usually found between at depths of 80-100 feet (25-30 m), making them the deepest occurring abalone species in California.

Distribution

In Santa Barbara County, California, and at some of the offshore islands and banks, extremely low numbers of isolated survivors have been identified along the mainland coast.

No recent information on current range is available for Baja California.

In Mexico, the population is thought to be depleted, based on commercial fishery data, but the status of the species in Mexico remains largely unknown.

Historically, white abalone were found from Point Conception, California, to Punta Abreojos, Mexico, in the Pacific Ocean. In the northern part of the California range, white abalone were reported as being more common along the mainland coast. However, in the middle portion of the California range, they were noted to occur more frequently at the offshore islands (especially San Clemente and Santa Catalina Islands). At the southern end of the range in Baja California, Mexico, white abalone were reported to occur more commonly along the mainland coast, but were also found at a number of islands including Isla Cedros and Isla Natividad.

It is unknown whether this distribution pattern resulted because of lack of suitable habitat along the mainland coast in the middle portion of the range or is due to overfishing in these more accessible mainland regions.

Population Trends

While there were once millions of white abalone, studies suggest that the current population is approximately 1,600-2,500 individuals. However, adults do not occur in high enough densities to successfully reproduce, contributing to repeated recruitment failure and an effective population size near zero.

Surveys conducted in Southern California show that at least a 99% reduction in white abalone density has occurred since the 1970s. Once occurring in numbers as high as 1/m2 of suitable habitat, recent surveys show that densities average 1/hectare (10,000 m2) in the Channel Islands off southern California.

White abalone are frequently found alone, and thus have little chance for successful fertilization.

Threats

The most significant threat to white abalone is related to the long-term effects that overfishing has had on the species. Due to their life history characteristics as long-lived, slow moving bottom dwellers with external fertilization and variable recruitment rates, abalone are particularly susceptible to the pressures imposed by intense commercial and recreational fishing.

A short-lived commercial fishery began in the early 1970s, peaked in the mid-1970s, and collapsed in the 1980s. The fishery was historically managed using size limits and seasons, but such methods failed because they did not account for density dependent reproduction and assumed regular successful settlement of the larvae. Overfishing reduced white abalone densities to such low levels that males and females were too far apart from one another to successfully reproduce.

The low densities of the animals in nature, resulting in repeated reproductive failure, make it unlikely that the species will recover on its own. Without human intervention, it was estimated in a status review report in 2000 [pdf] that the remaining white abalone in the wild would disappear by 2010. Because current populations are only small fractions of former numbers, recovery of the species will be complicated by genetic drift, founder effects, and a loss of genetic diversity.

Abalones are also vulnerable to various bacterial and parasitic infections.

Conservation Efforts

NOAA and its partners are supporting a captive breeding program at the University of California-Davis Bodega Marine Lab. After initial success of the breeding program in the early 2000s, in which tens of thousands of abalone spawned, the program encountered setbacks related to the health of the captive-bred animals. However, the program made great advances in disease research and treatment, resulting in better guidelines for water quality, quarantine protocols, and transfer procedures. As a result, thousands of juvenile white abalone currently reside within settlement tanks at the Bodega Marine Lab.

In addition to NOAA, there are numerous groups, both in the U.S. and internationally, doing work to gather more information and build programs to help save the white abalone. Some of these active groups include the Channel Islands National Park This link is an external site. and the California Department of Fish and Game This link is an external site..

These groups assess abalone populations and conduct research into the basic biology, disease pathology, and ecology of abalones. A consortium of scientists, fishermen, conservation organizations, universities, federal and state agencies, and mariculturists in private enterprise has been formed to develop and execute a plan to restore white abalone populations.

The White Abalone Restoration Consortium developed a four-step restoration plan:

  1. locate surviving white abalone by surveying historical habitat;
  2. collect brood stock;
  3. breed and rear a new generation of juveniles and ultimately, brood stock; and
  4. reestablish refugia of self-sustaining brood stocks in the wild.

Federal, state, and private funds have recently supported white abalone submersible surveys and the establishment of an aquaculture facility specifically designed to breed white abalone in captivity and rear offspring to adulthood for outplanting to the wild.

Regulatory Overview

Prior to the listing of white abalone as endangered under the ESA, the State of California closed the white abalone fishery in 1996 and subsequently closed all abalone fisheries in central and southern California in 1997. Measures taken during the late 1970s and 1980s to regulate the abalone fishery included prohibiting fishing during a portion of the spawning season, bag limits for recreational fishermen, limited entry, and permit fees.

The white abalone was designated as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1997 for the California region south to Baja California, Mexico. In August 1998, we initiated a review of the biological status of white abalone.

A petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to list the white abalone as endangered and designate critical habitat was received on April 29, 1999, and a subsequent petition from the Marine Conservation Biology Institute was received on May 15, 1999. A finding [pdf] that the petitioned action was warranted was published in the Federal Register on September 24, 1999. NMFS completed its status review [pdf] of the species in March of 2000.

NMFS published a proposed rule [pdf] to list the white abalone as endangered on May 5, 2000. NMFS published a final rule [pdf] listing the white abalone as an endangered species on May 29, 2001.

In October 2008, NMFS published a final recovery plan for the white abalone.

Taxonomy

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Mollusca
Class: Gastropoda
Order: Archaeogastropoda
Family: Haliotidae
Genus: Haliotis
Species: sorenseni

The black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) is another endangered abalone.

Key Documents

(All documents are in PDF format.)
Initiation of 5-Year Review for the Endangered Black Abalone
and the Endangered White Abalone
81 FR 93902 12/22/2016
Spotlight Species 5-year Action Plan n/a 02/10/2016
Recovery Plan 73 FR 62257 10/20/2008
Draft Recovery Plan (2006) 71 FR 64512 11/02/2006
Critical Habitat Designation Not Prudent 66 FR 29046 05/29/2001
ESA Listing Final Rule 66 FR 29046 05/29/2001
Status Review n/a 05/20/2000
Proposed ESA Listing 65 FR 26167 05/05/2000

More Information

Updated: December 22, 2016