SAN DIEGO - The Navy is working to protect Black Abalone, listed in the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Black Abalone inhabit the rocky intertidal areas of the Channel Islands in Southern California, including San Clemente Island and San Nicolas Island, important Navy facilities.
To avoid potential negative impacts to the environment, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pacific) created an innovative restoration program to increase the number of disease-resistant Black Abalone within impacted areas.
The primary factors leading to the decline of Black Abalone are overfishing and disease, specifically, withering syndrome. Other factors responsible for the decline are illegal harvesting and habitat destruction. Natural predation by various predators, including sea starts, Southern sea otters, and striped shore crabs, as well as competition for space with purple and red sea urchins has also led to the drastic decline of Black Abalone.
SSC Pacific initially began working with Black Abalone in the late 1990s, testing their larvae for antifouling properties that could be used to replace toxic materials.
"At the time, we felt that our laboratory at SSC Pacific could also be used for growing the larvae to adult-sized abalone in an effort to increase depleted abalone numbers in offshore waters," said Dave Lapota, SSC Pacific scientist who is leading this preservation effort. "Based on our initial undertaking, we realized that we could increase the abundance of remaining populations by transplanting adults offshore in affected areas, thereby increasing recruitment to the impact populations."
During the initial acclimation effort, the laboratory transplanted 800 adult green abalone off the coast in their natural habitat.
"Only a handful of quick dives were performed to determine success or failure in the transplant effort, but cursory results indicate that 60 percent of the population may have survived and will therefore contribute to new offspring in the area," said Lapota. "By creating these reproductive nodes along the coast it should be possible to increase populations, although we are currently the only institution that has outplanted numerous abalones."
Lapota notes that there are still challenges ahead, the largest being the need to increase the number of surviving larvae so that they will eventually develop into mature abalone. He notes that this is a critical aspect that has plagued the commercial industry for the past 50 years.
Lapota, along with Melissa Blando, an intern at SSC Pacific, are evaluating appropriate environmental conditions to produce controlled spawning within their laboratory at SSC Pacific.
The pair has identified elements that can induce the production and survival of the abalone, including various algal diets, temperature-controlled seawater, the use of specific antibiotics during the abalone's earliest stages, and injections of a neurotransmitter to signal the larvae to settle and metamorphose into the juvenile abalone stage.
SSC Pacific works with the California Department of Fish and Game, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, the Orange County Coastkeeper, and the Orange County Restoration Project in an effort to increase the Black Abalone population in Southern California.
The goal is to preserve an almost extinct species on Navy ranges.
"This project is very worthwhile," said Lapota. "I've always felt that if SSC Pacific and the Navy could make our environment a better place then we should support this effort. It's nice to recognize that our efforts today can make a difference in preserving this species for future generations to enjoy."