Kristin Aquilino stands outside a locked black door with a sign that says “Authorized Personnel Only”.
“You’re about to walk into a room where more white abalone exist in the ocean, which is both terrifying and an incredible opportunity to save them,” she said.
Aquilino runs the white abalone captive program at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory in California.
“I basically run a breeding clinic, spa and nursery for an endangered species of sea snail,” she says.
This wasn’t exactly Aquilino’s childhood dream. She admits that she didn’t know what abalone was until she came to California as a graduate student. But she learned quickly.
There are seven species native to the California coast, and in 2001 the white abalone became the first marine invertebrate to be listed as endangered. The unlucky white abalone is known to be the softest and tastiest, and by the 1970s they were fished to near extinction.
Today, diving for wild abalone is banned in California. There are commercial abalone farms, but Aquilino and her team have been working since 2011 to get enough animals into the ocean to remove the species from the endangered list.
“I couldn’t have imagined that as a kid growing up in Iowa, I would be in charge of saving an endangered species of sea snail,” Aquilino said.
About 20,000 abalones in her lab are very large in age and size. In the “larval rack”, the smallest hatchlings are only a few hundred microns across – about the size of a vanilla bean in your favorite ice cream.
It takes two to four years in the lab for abalone to turn from a tiny baby to an inch-long brood ready to be released into the ocean. In another tank were 21-year-olds that were bred during the first year of the program (Aquilino’s best guess is that abalone can live for 40 years or more in the wild.)
The 10 largest animals in the lab were photographed between 2004 and 2019 and are now slightly larger than a softball. But these seniors are yet to retire — Aquilino says they are among her most prolific breeders. She pointed at “Green 312” clinging to the side of the tank.
“There’s a special animal here,” she said. “She’s one of the most prolific animals on this show. She laid 20 million eggs at a time. And that’s our hope for all of these animals to reproduce regularly. “
So, how do researchers convince animals to give birth?
“The reproduction of white abalone is a really romantic process,” says Aquilino. “We put them all in their own crates. We put a hydrogen peroxide love potion in those crates, played with some Barry White, and hoped they gave us any gametes they got. yes.”
Aquilino said the researchers did in fact play Barry White’s hit “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” in the lab during breeding season. Why not? It cannot hurt.
“I suppose scientists need to be in the mood, too,” she giggled.
Lab director John Largier said there are other labs around the world doing similar work, but what makes this lab special is the fact that it’s located right at the core of the ocean. .
California is the part of the world where cold, nutrient-rich water rises near the surface. It occurs in southwestern Africa – where Largier comes from – as well as northwest Africa into southern Europe, and along the western coasts of South and North America.
All of those areas, Largier said, share desirable properties.
“They all feature bounty fish, big birds, sharks, whales – and on land, the wine is delicious,” he said.
As for the work they are doing to bring the abalone back to the brink of extinction, it will take some time, Aquilino said. The lab is making about 30,000 white abalones a year, but she believes they need to triple that number.
“It will probably take decades to create self-sustaining populations [in the wild]”, she speaks.” If we can keep bringing animals into the same places four times a year or so for five or six years, the hope is that we can create self-sustaining populations. “
That work is well underway, and her lab has produced more animals than it can store.
As she was about to leave the lab, Aquilino received a message from the hatchery manager at an abalone farm that cooperated with the lab. It reads, “The Future of White Abalone,” and includes two images of troughs teeming with her animals – ready to try their luck in the open ocean for the first time. .