The southern resident orcas aren’t the only species headed toward extinction in the Salish Sea. The pinto abalone is also facing its demise.
The state Department of Fish & Wildlife is seeking public input on its attempt to classify the pinto abalone as a state endangered species. Fish & Wildlife hosted two public meetings regarding the proposed listing, one in Port Townsend on Dec. 4 and one in Anacortes on Dec. 10.
“Pinto abalone are the focus of a concerted restoration effort by state, federal, tribal and other partners such as the Puget Sound Restoration Fund in Washington,” said Hank Carson, a Fish & Wildlife research scientist, in a news release.
“Our goal is to halt the decline of abalone populations and return them to sustainable levels.”
The Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider adding the pinto abalone to its endangered list in March.
The public can submit comments and information about the species until then to Michael Ulrich at Fish & Wildlife at [email protected], 360-902-2737 or mail to Fish Program, P.O. Box 43200, Olympia, WA 98504-3200.
Pinto abalone is a shallow-water mollusk that populates the waters around the San Juan Islands and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They feed on diatoms and kelp and grow to a reproductive size of between 40 millimeters and 70 millimeters.
Abalone populations worldwide are in decline due to overharvesting and loss of habitat. The species ranges from Baja California in Mexico to Alaska.
The pinto or northern abalone is the only species of abalone found in state waters. The sea snails with iridescent shells have been a prized delicacy for centuries — first feeding indigenous tribes before being harvested commercially.
“We’re not going to get recovery without intervention, we don’t think. This has been great, I think it’s been a huge success, but it’s kind of been a drop in the bucket in terms of the whole population,” Carson said at the Anacortes meeting. “If we’re really going to get population recovery, we’re probably going to need to scale this up even more.”
The Port Townsend Marine Science Center is working with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund to raise Pinto abalone for research. Visitors can see the full-grown pinot abalone is the aquarium.
Between 1992 and 2017, there has been a decline of more than 97 percent in the species’ population, despite a ban on abalone harvesting in 1994 and an increase in hatchery production, which began in 2002.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed the pinto abalone as a species of concern in 2004, and Canada listed abalone as endangered in 2009.
“At this point, [Washington hatcheries have] put over 15,000 out there from 76 different families, and we’ve got 12 different sites here in the islands for the last, almost 10 years of this,” Carson said during the Anacortes meeting, adding that survival of abalone to the age of 3 is about 10 percent, “which may not seem great to you but it seems awesome to me for a species like this.”
For more information about pinto abalone, visit wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/pinto_abalone.
Mandi Johnson reports for the The Islands’ Sounder and Journal of the San Juans, both owned by Sound Publishing Inc.
Leah Leach, executive editor of the Peninsula Daily News, contributed to this story.