On November 28, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) designated 360 square kilometers of California coast up to a depth of six meters as critical habitat for the black abalone.
This is great news for not only black abalone, a species whose numbers have declined rapidly in the last few decades and is listed under the Endangered Species Act, but also for the entire Californian nearshore ecosystem. Designating habitat as critical goes beyond the normal protections afforded an individual species listed under the Endangered Species Act. By protecting the species’s habitat and designating it as critical, the NMFS is protecting not just habitat currently occupied by black abalone but also potential habitat into which the species can expand and recover.
Once a habitat is listed as critical, any federal project (or project that receives federal assistance or requires federal permits) that affects the habitat must be identified, assessed, and its impacts mitigated if possible. For example, if an agricultural operation uses pesticides requiring a federal permit, they must prove that their operations will not negatively affect black abalone or the designated critical habitat into which they may expand. This is a huge step toward safeguarding the marine ecosystem for not only black abalone but for other wildlife that call the nearshore ecosystem their home as well, such as sea otters.
Southern sea otters, also listed under the Endangered Species Act, have long been blamed by fishing groups for the rapid decline of black abalone. These groups have often used the decline of the black abalone as a reason for restricting the sea otter’s range. They claim that sea otters, some of which prey on black abalone as a part of their natural diet, are the main driver of the black abalone’s decline in California. The NMFS reconfirmed, in their response to comments on their proposed rule to declare a critical habitat for black abalone, that sea otters are not a main driver of the black abalone’s decline. In particular, the NMFS claimed:
1. Sea otters were absent from southern California during the widespread decline of black abalone in that region.
2. The current last foothold for black abalone (i.e. central and north-central California habitats) directly overlaps with the current range of sea otters.
3. One of the only places in southern California where black abalone populations have been increasing and where multiple recruitment events have occurred since 2005 (i.e. San Nicolas Island) is also the only place south of Point Conception where a growing population of southern sea otters exists, indicating that black abalone populations can recover and remain stable in the presence of sea otters.
Based on the best available science, sea otters are not to blame for the black abalone’s decline. In fact, the NMFS claims that historical overfishing and poaching, along with disease, are the prime culprits for the decline of the black abalone.
Though critical habitat for black abalone is a good step in the right direction, incredibly important species like sea otters are still struggling to survive in the increasingly polluted Californian coastal waters. Now is the time to celebrate for the additional protections afforded our coastal ecosystem, but Californians should remain vigilant in the fight for a healthy marine environment. Write your representatives to let them know you support a clean coastal environment so that wildlife, like the black abalone and the sea otter, can thrive.