Black abalone were once the most abundant large shellfish clinging to the rocks of intertidal zones between Baja and Oregon. A savored delicacy for sea otters and native coastal people alike, these hard-shelled marine snails were prized for the iridescent colors and the occasional pearl found inside their shells. Like most other species of abalone native to coastal California, black abalone have been decimated by seafood enthusiasts and the fisheries that fill their plates.
Three years after Center petitioned for federal protection of the black abalone, in January 2009 the National Marine Fisheries Service declared the species officially endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In 2011, as a result of a Center lawsuit, the agency announced protection for 140 square miles of critical habitat for the species.
Scientists agree that the black abalone is withering toward extinction, and unfortunately there are a multitude of factors contributing to the decline of this shellfish. Although abalone fishing was banned early last century, harvesting resumed in 1968 — and this threat combined with abalone wasting disease to wipe out the majority of Southern California’s black abalone population and leave the species facing a severe decline. Today, the black abalone is presented with another threat, just as grave as overfishing or disease: global warming. Warmer water will increase the deadliness of wasting disease and will likely reduce the kelp species consumed by abalone. Rising sea levels will eliminate much of the species’ intertidal habitat. Ocean acidification, caused by the ocean’s absorption of excess carbon dioxide, may further render oceans inhospitable to sea animals.
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