Let’s Get It On

Marine Biologists Struggle to Get White Abalone in the Mood

Abalone do not engage in singular hookups; they mate en masse, engaging in “broadcast reproduction,” where the males and the females shoot their sperm and eggs in near simultaneous unison.
Courtesy Photo

White abalone have been harvested to the brink of extinction in part because many consumers over the years have been convinced that the tender and tasty sea snails ​— ​once endemic to the Pacific coast from Pt. Conception to Baja Mexico ​— ​are also imbued with aphrodisiac qualities.

Humans are now trying to return the favor by getting the fleshy mollusk “in the mood” by placing them in scientifically induced love nests engineered by marine biologists with the UC Davis Bodega Bay abalone restoration project. Santa Barbara ​— ​always a prime destination for those seeking a romantic getaway ​— ​will be the site of two parallel abalone orgies this week, involving a total of about 25 animals; one will be held at the Ty Warner Sea Center and the other at UCSB.

There will be a conspicuous dearth of Barry White mood music or any pillow talk. Instead, the biologists will first increase the temperature of the water as part of what’s clinically described as “spawning induction protocol.” That, after all, is what happens in nature. Then, they’ll add hormone-mimicking chemicals to the water tanks housing the rare white abalone. The objective is to make the abalone, also known for their gorgeous shells, believe the end is nigh and that they need to release whatever reproductive load they’re carrying in one frenzied last hurrah of sperm colliding with eggs. In other words, it’s the apocalyptic equivalent of last call. “If they sense the end is approaching, they let everything go,” explained Melissa Neuman, a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency seeding the white abalone restoration effort, now in its 10th year. Neuman noted the white abalone are unusually sensitive creatures and acknowledged that this approach has enjoyed, at best, mixed results thus far.

Abalone do not engage in singular hookups. Instead, they mate en masse. Packed in tight, large clusters, they engage in what’s termed “broadcast reproduction,” meaning the males and the females shoot their sperm and eggs in near simultaneous unison, jettisoning their gametes into the water above. There, they have about 24 hours to connect. After that, they have about five days to get swept hither, thither, or yon by the water columns, after which they drop to the sandy bottom and, if they’re lucky, survive. A typical female lays about five million eggs at a time. The vast majority of those go unfertilized, and even most of the ones that do don’t make it long term.

Abalone mate usually once a year, as the waters warm and the phytoplankton bloom. A good reproductive year is known as a “recruitment event.” It turns out, according to Neuman, that white abs enjoy a good recruitment event once every 10 years. Given this challenging track record getting started, white abalone have responded by living a relatively long time, in the wild for about 30 years.

It remains something of a mystery what actually triggers this collective ejaculation in white abalone. Hormones are clearly involved, said Neuman. Typically, a lone male goes first, a brave outlier. Then another male, responding to this signal, joins in. After that, the females know that it’s time to release their eggs, and that their deposits will not be squandered. In order to figure out this dance, Neuman said marine biologists study the gonads of white abalone prior to “broadcast” to see what clues, if any, they provide. To this end, scientists have devised something called “the gonad index rating.” That, it turns out, is not particularly useful in predicting sexual activity among white abalone.

As Neuman suggested, white abalone may be having a particularly hard time ​— ​they’re by far the most imperiled of all the many hued abalone ​— ​because there never were that many to begin with. What makes the abalone so prized by humans makes them less robust in the wild. They are white and tender, for example, because they tend to congregate in offshore areas where the current is not so strong. As a result, less muscular pulchritude is required for these abalone to adhere to the rocks. Compounding matters, they’re exceptionally sensitive to certain water-borne bacteria that induce “withering,” a major problem. But what proved nearly fatal was their sublime succulence in the saucepan.

Save the Mollusks

It remains an open question whether white abs can actually incite anyone to heights of passion they would not otherwise achieve. But in the vast Asian market, that belief exists. The abalone trade was pioneered in California by Chinese immigrants; when Congress passed Chinese exclusion laws, Japanese immigrants took over the trade. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, with the advent of modern scuba technology, that white abs began to be seriously plundered. Even as populations plummeted, demand remained constant. Prices, accordingly, were quite high.

In 1996, the fishery was shut down to protect remaining individuals. In 2001, the white abalone was placed on the federally endangered species list. Efforts to repopulate their traditional natural habitats proved extremely problematic. Given the logistics of abalone reproduction, a large, densely packed population base is required. By the time the federal government tried to cram the genie back into the bottle, that base was gone.

As a result, the federal government is now bankrolling efforts to jump-start the return of the white abalone under controlled conditions. The ultimate objective is to begin planting abalones hatched in a lab in protected natural habitats like the Channel Islands, where they once were abundant. That, said Neuman, hasn’t happened yet and probably won’t for another year or two. Still, she stressed, they’re getting close.

In the meantime, marine biologists are hoping they can get a rise out of the male and female abalone in Santa Barbara next week. As has happened in the past, sometimes only the males in one location broadcast their gametes, and only the females elsewhere broadcast theirs. Should that happen, marine biologists are prepared to make love happen by availing themselves of the ultimate aphrodisiac ​— ​the automobile.


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