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Recovery strategy for the Northern Abalone

1. Background

1.1 Species Assessment Information from COSEWIC

Date of Assessment: May 2000 Common Name (population): northern abalone Scientific Name: Haliotis kamtschatkana COSEWIC Status: threatened Reason for designation: A patchily distributed marine mollusc found along the west coast. Highly prized for harvesting, it continues to decline since complete closure of the fishery in 1990, probably as a result of continued high levels of poaching. There is evidence that the decline and fragmentation of the population are impairing the reproductive ability of the species even though there persists a reservoir of reproductive adults. Canadian Occurrence: Pacific Ocean COSEWIC Status History: Designated threatened in April 1999. Status re-examined and confirmed in May 2000. Last assessment based on existing status report.

1.2  Description

Abalone are a marine mollusk related to snails and whelks.  The northern abalone, Haliotis kamtschatkana (Jonas 1845) is one of approximately 65 species of abalone (Haliotis spp.) found world-wide (Geiger and Poppe, 2000). H. kamtschatkana is called ‘pinto’ abalone in the United States, in keeping with the tradition of naming abalone according to their colour.  In B.C., the term ‘northern’ is used as the species is the world’s northernmost abalone (Sloan and Breen 1988).

The ear-shaped shell of northern abalone is relatively small, thin, elongate-oval and low, with three to six open holes, and sculpture of irregular lumps superimposed over the spiral structure.  The colour is mottled reddish or greenish with areas of white and blue (McLean 1966).  The top of the shell is usually camouflaged with algae.  The mother-of-pearl on the inside of the shell is less colourful than many other species (the New Zealand paua, H. iris, is the species most commonly seen in jewelry) and lacks a muscle scar.  The muscular foot is fringed with tentacles.  Two prominent tentacles mark the anterior end of the abalone.  The top spiral is carried posterior. 

1.3 Populations and Distribution

Northern abalone are found off the west coast of North America in shallow subtidal waters along exposed and semi-exposed rocky coastlines from Yakutat, Alaska (O’Clair and O’Clair 1998) to Turtle Bay, Baja California (McLean 1966).  In Canada, northern abalone occur only on the Pacific coast in patchy distribution on hard substrate in the intertidal and shallow subtidal.  Most of the adult abalone occur in near shore, exposed or semi-exposed coastal waters at <10 m depth.


Canada – B.C.

The northern abalone population has been assessed in B.C. since 1978 through surveys of index sites using a standard survey design (Breen and Adkins 1979).  Many of the surveys between 1978-90, and much of the commercial fishery, were conducted in areas along the south-east Haida Gwaii / Queen Charlotte Islands (QCI) and the central coast of B.C. (Winther et al. 1995; Harbo 1997; Campbell et al. 1998).  Most surveys were conducted in areas with significant commercial harvests, where northern abalone were most abundant (Sloan and Breen 1988).  Although there were a few surveys of southern B.C. (Quayle 1971; Breen et al. 1978; Adkins 1996; Wallace 1999), they did not afford the extended coverage provided by the northern surveys. 

Surveys at index sites in south east QCI and the central coast of B.C. have provided general time-series trends indicating that the abundance of northern abalone declined more than 75% between the period of 1977-84 and remained low and or continued to decrease through 2002 (Winther et al. 1995; Thomas and Campbell 1996; Campbell et al. 1998, 2000a; Atkins et al. 2006; Lessard et al. 2006).  The mean total northern abalone density at comparable index sites changed from 2.4 to 0.27 abalone per m2 for the central coast, during 1979-2001, and from 2.2 to 0.34 abalone per m2 for QCI during 1977-2002.  The similarity in northern abalone density between new random sites and index sites indicated that the mean densities from all index sites were reasonably representative of adult northern abalone sampled in areas of the central coast of B.C. in 1997 and south east QCI in 1998 (Campbell et al. 1998, 2000a).  Other surveys using different sampling designs also confirmed the low densities of northern abalone found by the index surveys in the same areas (Lessard et al. 2002; J. Lessard, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Nanaimo, BC, V9T 6N7, pers. comm.)

Examination of surveyed index sites in both QCI and the central coast indicated a general decline in the number of sites with at least one northern abalone per m2 between 1978 and 2002 (Campbell 2000b, Atkins et al. 2006; Lessard et al. 2007).  The proportion of index sites with large adult abalone (≥ 100 mm shell length (SL)) generally decreased from 89% and 77% to 27% and 25% for the central coast and QCI, respectively.  The decrease in density and decline in the number of sites with northern abalone suggested serial depletion of large abalone.

Surveys and observations in southern B.C. have indicated even lower densities of northern abalone (J. Lessard, pers. comm.).  New index site surveys were initiated on the West Coast of Vancouver Island in 2003 (WCVI) and in Queen Charlotte and Johnstone Straits in 2004.  Limited surveys were conducted in Georgia Basin in 2005.  The mean total density estimate was 0.09 abalone/m2 for WCVI from all sites sampled, but 0.21 abalone per m2 in Quatsino Sound where more sheltered abalone habitat was present (Atkins et al. 2004).  The mean total density estimates were 0.06 abalone per m2 in Queen Charlotte Strait and 0.02 abalone per m2 in Johnstone Strait (Davies et al. 2006).  Wallace (1999) reported relatively high population abundance of northern abalone in an area close to William Head Penitentiary, near Victoria, where the presence of penitentiary guards may have discouraged poachers from nearshore access.  However, during the more recent surveys at William Head in 2005, only three individuals were found at two (11%) of the 19 sites surveyed, and all were large (>100mm SL).  The most likely reason is simply that the large abalone found during previous surveys died and recruitment was low (J. Lessard, pers. comm.).  The mean density for all sites surveyed in Georgia Basin in 2005 was 0.0098 abalone per m2, which was significantly lower than the densities estimated in 1982 and (0.73 abalone per m2) and 1985 (1.15 abalone per m2) in the same area.  The lack of immature individuals and low adult density suggest poor potential for future recruitment in this area.

Breen (1986) and Sloan and Breen (1988) suggested that abalone populations probably fluctuated even in the absence of commercial fishing.  Exploratory surveys conducted in south eastern QCI during 1955 by Quayle (1962) suggested that northern abalone were less abundant in 1955 than in both 1914 (Thompson 1914) and in the late 1970s (Sloan and Breen 1988).  The extirpation of sea otters from B.C. by early 1900s had an effect on a number of invertebrate populations, including northern abalone. With the re-introduction and recent expansion of the sea otter population, restoration of the northern abalone population to the levels seen in the late 1970s is unlikely.

Global – U.S.A.

The IUCN Species Survival Commission has listed the global status of H. kamtschatkana as endangered based on an observed population size reduction of >50%.  Although the observed declines in B.C. and Washington showed a population size reduction of >80%, the assessment judged that “the historical elimination of sea otters led to abnormally large pre-exploitation level [of abalone]” and accordingly reduced the classification from critically endangered. The assessment considers significant populations of northern abalone to be absent south of San Juan, Orcas and Lopez Islands in Washington State (IUCN 2005). 

By comparison to B.C., the average density of northern abalone in Washington in 2006 at the San Juan Island index sites was 0.032 abalone per m2 and ranged from 0.000 to 0.082 abalone per m2; two sites out of ten had no abalone (Don Rothaus, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Mill Creek, WA 98012-1296, pers. comm.).  Pinto (i.e., northern) abalone were designated as a ‘State Candidate Species’ in Washington in 1998 and were listed as a ‘Species of Concern’ by  NOAA Fisheries in 2004 for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act

There are no estimates of population density from Alaska since the commercial fishery closed in 1996 (IUCN 2005).