Written by: Jasmine Sanborn, Communications Consultant and Katie Sowul, Lead Abalone Biologist

Twenty-five years after closure of the fishery, Pinto abalone have officially been added to Washington’s state endangered species list. Once prevalent throughout the San Juan Islands and Strait of Juan de Fuca, the prized mollusks have been struggling to rebound despite the end of legal harvest in 1994.

Pinto abalone range from Alaska to Baja, Mexico, and are Washington’s only abalone species. These slow growing marine snails are well-known for their bright, iridescent shell which can grow to around 5 inches long. They are a key species within kelp forest communities and are a protein-rich food source for lingcod, cabezon, rockfish, otters, sea stars, and other marine animals. Additionally, the popular, unique fishery provided the state and coastal communities with the profitable economic benefits of tourism and fishing equipment sales.

A pinto abalone pokes their eyes out of their shell.
A pinto abalone pokes their eyes out of their shell.
A camouflaged Pinto abalone pokes her eyes out of her shell. Katie Sowul/WDFW

As an important staple to Native American communities, Pinto abalone were likely harvested for centuries prior to the opening of Washington state’s recreational fishery in 1959. At the beginning of the state managed fishery, only abalone with a shell length longer than 3 inches were allowed to be harvested, and fishers were allowed a limit of 5 abalone per day. By 1980, the size limit was increased to 3.5 inch minimum in an effort to reduce the number of abalone being taken and provide for additional spawning opportunity prior to the animals reaching an exploitable size.

During the height of the fishery, divers were taking around 40,000 abalone from Washington waters each year. However, there were also reports that a large amount of abalone were being taken and sold illegally. In retrospect, biologists believe these factors likely caused the decline of Pinto abalone stocks.

By 1991, the local abalone population was estimated to be half of what it was in the late 1970s. In response to the decline, the Washington State Department of Fisheries set up permanent survey index stations around the San Juan Islands to actively track population changes. The initial survey of 10 stations in 1992 showed 359 total abalone. In that same year, Washington Department of Fisheries decreased the harvest limit to three abalone per day and increased the size limit to a 4 inch minimum shell length.

diver holds a small colorful pinto abalone in their hand
diver holds a small colorful pinto abalone in their hand
A diver holds a 2.5 inch Pinto abalone. Katie Sowul/WDFW

Two years later, a survey of the same 10 permanent index sites around the San Juan Island showed the population density had declined by 20%. It was clear to researchers that the Pinto abalone fishery was no longer sustainable. In 1994, the fishery was closed.

Abalone are broadcast spawners, which means females and males release eggs and sperm into the water column to be fertilized and become larvae. Thus, abalone need to be within close distances of each other to reproduce. A lone abalone, even in perfect health, will never successfully add to the population. Prior to the height of the fishery, this was not a problem for the naturally abundant species. However, by 1994, Pinto abalone had been fished to a density too sparse for the animals to reproduce. The permanent survey sites that held 359 Pinto abalone in 1992 had a total of 12 living abalone in 2017; a 97% decline. The last time a juvenile Pinto abalone was seen in Washington by a research diver was in 2008.

In 2002, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), and Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF) joined together to strategize about restoration possibilities for Washington’s Pinto abalone. Thanks to combined resources and experienced abalone scientists in partnership, a plan was developed and is actively running today. With the goal of restoring Pinto abalone to a self-sustaining population, abalone are bred and raised in hatcheries and juveniles are “outplanted” into the rocky reef once abundant with the species.

colorful, hatchery raised pinto abalone shell
colorful, hatchery raised pinto abalone shell
Colorful, hatchery raised Pinto abalone. Josh Bouma/Puget Sound Restoration Fund

In 2019, the state legislature allocated $900,000 in funding to help support pinto abalone recovery programs.

“When it comes to recovery of the Puget Sound ecosystem, everything is connected and attention to detail is important,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes from Washington’s 23rd District. “Recovery of lesser-known species like the nearly depleted Pinto abalone is critical for a healthy and more resilient Puget Sound and the salmon and orca whales we all love.”

“I’m glad the legislature agreed to support this effort,” she added.

Projects like this are not financed by fishing or hunting license revenue. On the national level, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act holds great promise to potentially change the situation of critical under funding for conservation and stewardship of endangered species in Washington and across the nation. #RecoverWildlife

Please contact Lead Abalone Biologist Katie Sowul for questions, comments, or more information.

A timeline of the decline of the Pinto abalone.
A timeline of the decline of the Pinto abalone.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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