At first glance, this creature may just look like a colorful rock. But he’d actually fit right in at a snail family reunion. This is a white abalone, a type of endangered marine snail with a rich history.
In its heyday (1969–1972), white abalone supported a lucrative fishery in California. But intense commercial harvesting drove catch from roughly 143,000 pounds per year to just 5,000 pounds per year in less than a decade. And in 1997, California ceased all white abalone fishing because population levels got too low.
NOAA and our partners are working to keep white abalone around for future generations. Here are a few reasons we don’t want to lose them to extinction:
- They are kelp forest architects. Abalone graze on kelp plants that inhabit some of the most productive and biodiverse places on the planet. While this grazing may seem harmful, it actually increases kelp diversity by clearing patches of rocky surface so that multiple kelp species can flourish. The increase in kelp diversity translates to an increase in diversity of fish and other animals that depend on kelp forest habitat. Celebrate Habitat Month 2018 by learning more about our work to conserve habitat in order to boost fish populations and recover threatened and endangered species.
They are a cultural icon from coastal California to Alaska. Archeologists determined abalone shells date back more than 5,000 years, with the shell trade extending across the continent as far east as the Mississippi River. The meat provided protein to people year-round and the iridescent shells became useful tools, beautiful ornaments, and jewelry. This historic cultural importance highlights the potential for the future economic value of restoring this resource.
People like to eat them. At its peak, abalone fishing reaped millions of dollars for West Coast economies. Successful white abalone recovery could restore the social and economic role these tasty snails once played in our nation.