The pinto abalone, a red- and green-shelled abalone found primarily amidst the kelp-forested coasts of British Columbia and Alaska but with populations reaching as far south as Baja California, was never the most widely represented of abalones in Santa Barbara’s historically shellfish-rich waters; reds, pinks, greens, blacks, and whites have occupied a greater share of the Channel’s rocky floors.
Now, however, hit hard by the combined pressures of overfishing with increasingly warm and acidic oceans, populations of this seldom-seen citizen of the California sea may disappear altogether — from our coasts, and everywhere else.
To save whatever pintos remain, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have announced their intention to sue the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries Services in an effort to provide stronger protections for the abalone. The two conservation groups filed separate petitions to NOAA in July and August of 2013 to list the pinto under the Endangered Species Act, by which NOAA was legally required to investigate and and then determine within one year if it would implement the corresponding protections.
Over a year has passed since the two agencies petitioned for protection, and NOAA has yet to make a determination one way or another; in turn, the CBD and NRDC have now filed an intent to sue. The two conservation agencies have 60 days after the filing of their intents before they can take NOAA to court. “Without lawsuits, things can be delayed indeterminately,” Kiersten Lippman, a biologist with the CBD said. “Given the declines of 99 percent in some areas, the species need protection as soon as possible.”
Michael Millstein, NOAA Fisheries Public Affairs Officer, said that NOAA is still gathering information on whether to grant endangered status to the pinto abalone, but expects the agency to make a decision before the end of the year. “There’s a lot of info to review,” he said, mentioning the task of gathering population data across many mileage of coastal waters. “We’ve had to take all that into account … and we are very close to making that determination within the next two months.”
Millstein says the agency expects to reach a decision within the 60-day period permitted through the notice of intent. In the meantime, NOAA-run laboratories, such as the Mulkiteo Research Station in the Puget Sound region of Washington, continue to work in conjunction with state universities and local organizations in areas where the pinto abalone is missing most.
The pinto is not the only potentially endangered species for the NOAA to consider. Milstein could not say at press time how many petitions the agency receives per year, but alluded to several other animals up for additional protection. “There’s quite a few others,” he said.
Abalone populations all along the coast have been plummeting for decades. Commercial harvesting in Southern California reached its peak in the late 60s and early 70s, after which certain abalone species — and the fisheries that harvested them — suffered “catastrophic decline,” reported the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in a 2003 study. Two of these species, the white and black abalone, are now critically endangered, with the white being perhaps the rarest abalone species of all.
The pinto could face a similar fate. Though they have been declining uniformly across their historic range, the drop is most dramatic in the Pacific Northwest, where pintos are most abundant. The NRDC reports the pinto is already “functionally extinct” in areas of Washington, and may soon disappear from Alaska and British Columbia without further intervention from the NOAA.
The pinto’s plight reflects a much greater decline worldwide reported earlier in the year by the World Wildlife Foundation — Earth has lost half its wildlife over the past 40 years. Though protecting the livelihood of a single species is “a tough one to tackle on the individual level,” Lippman said, a move by NOAA to protect the pinto abalone could provide visibility towards preventing additional climate change losses, animal or otherwise.
“We really need to take a drastic change to how we’re living our lives,” she said. “We need to start waking up.”