The Natural Laboratory is a series of podcasts exploring science in Point Reyes National Seashore. This series is produced by Point Reyes National Seashore Association in collaboration with the National Park Service and the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center.
[Ambient intertidal sounds]
Theodora Tong Mautz: You're listening to the Point Reyes National Seashore Natural Laboratory Podcast, located on Tamál-Húye, the lands of the Coast Miwok. I'm Theodora Mautz with Point Reyes National Seashore Association, nonprofit partner to the National Park Service.
[Ambient intertidal sounds]
TTM: This is the second part of a two-part podcast on black abalone, the marine snail that lives in the area where the sea meets the land, called the intertidal zone, off the coasts of California and Baja California, Mexico. Let's dive back in where we left off: at a dangerous point for black abalone, where populations in Southern California were almost completely wiped out by a disease called Withering Syndrome in the late 1980s and early 90s. Things got so dire that they were added to the Endangered Species List in 2009.
At that point, it became clear that something needed to happen, quickly, to save the black abalone from extinction. Enter Susan Wang, the Black Abalone Recovery Coordinator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, Fisheries.
Susan Wang: I was part of a team to evaluate the status of black abalone. And we eventually, of course, decided to list black abalone as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. And so, following that, we worked on critical habitat. And then since then, I've mostly been working with a team to develop the recovery plan for black abalone, and we finalized that last year in 2020, and so now we are currently in the phase of recovery implementation, so taking that plan and prioritizing the recovery actions.
TTM: The recovery of this species is so important that there is a whole team dedicated to it. When most Bay Area residents hear the term BART, they think about the San Francisco subway system. But to a dedicated group of collaborative researchers, BART also stands for the Black Abalone Recovery Team. Susan now leads BART, and here's what she said about their work:
SuW: So, this is a team that's been formally appointed by NOAA Fisheries, and it includes I think 9 partners that are representatives of federal agencies, state agencies, universities, as well as other nonprofit entities, and also one of them is also from a consulting company. So, these are all black abalone experts and experts in the field of monitoring and recovery and outreach and education. And so, this team has been formed to advise NMFS or NOAA Fisheries on recovery implementation.
TTM: NMFS is the National Marine Fisheries Service.
SuW: One of our recovery actions is to restore and re-establish populations where they've declined because of disease, and so the main focus there is translocation: so taking abalone from healthy populations and moving them to these areas where there are no more black abalone right now, or where the populations have declined, and re-establishing and restoring those populations. And so, developing those plans and implementing restoration efforts, as well as learning and coordinating with our partners in Mexico, because they're actively doing that work right now, and then also ongoing studies on genetics and disease, and then working with enforcement and outreach and education partners to really get the word out there about black abalone and help the public see ways that they can really be contributing to black abalone recovery efforts.
TTM: Susan mentioned translocation as a key recovery action. The reason it might work is because in northern populations of black abalone, or further north than Point Conception, Withering Syndrome did not affect those populations. That doesn't mean that the bacterium, a type of Rickettsia, isn't there: in fact, when researchers sample black abalone from any population along the coastline, every single one has the bacterium that causes Withering Syndrome. Here's Professor Pete Raimondi, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of California Santa Cruz, discussing how that works:
Pete Raimondi: And so, the real question isn't whether it's got it or doesn't have it, it's why and when it's going to go rogue, meaning it's going to become really problematic and lead to the death or really a lot of disease in the animal. It's kind of like people, people have got all sorts of things on them that are under control, like all sorts of bacteria are all over you, Staph is all over you. But for most people, it's not an issue. But if you get compromised in some way, or if you get stressed, then it can become an issue. And that's the same thing with abalone. We think that every one of them has got Rickettsia, but it doesn't really cause problems except under certain stressful conditions.
TTM: One of those potentially stressful conditions is warmer water temperatures. That could explain why black abalone populations further north aren't dying from Withering Syndrome. And it checks out – Steve Whitaker, a marine ecologist working at Channel Islands National Park, told me that he started seeing some populations of black abalone rebound in one site on the Channel Islands. But then, in 2015, two things happened that significantly raised water temperatures.
Steve Whitaker: We had a combo effect: we had not only one of the strongest El Niños on record occur during that year, but during the same period of time, we had something called the "warm water blob" and that was somewhat of a mystery at the time as to why it was caused, but it was this giant body of water that was much warmer than the surrounding areas, and then that warm water blob drifted around throughout the North Pacific Ocean. And in combination with the El Niño, really increased the water temperatures, which then had that ill effect on the black abalone, as well as the other organisms. It's not good for virtually anything in the ocean except humans bathing on the seashore, you know, we like the warm water. But everything else doesn't.
TTM: And this 2015 event once again devastated the black abalone populations at the Channel Islands. What that means is that global warming poses a threat to black abalone because of rising ocean temperatures. And that was sad news to me, because everything else about black abalone is unusually resilient against extreme changes in climate, just by being able to survive in the intertidal zone. Both Susan Wang and Professor Raimondi spoke to me about this:
SuW: What a tough environment that is! And that's where they live, you know, they, they're a marine snail, yet they can stay out of the water for hours in a day in the sun, and you know, they're just amazing creatures and really interesting how they can stand—they're tough— so they can stand all of this.
PR: It's resilient to things that ordinarily you would think would be problematic, and that may be problematic in the future with respect to climate, which are things like increase in temperature, changes in pH, oxygen, and that's because it experiences all those things almost on a daily basis, you know, because it's in the intertidal. Things get hot, they get cold, they can go low pH during upwelling, they can go low oxygen during cold upwell periods. So, there's a lot of things that you think are going to be problematic in the future because of climate change, they're already adapted for, and so they're unusual in that sense.
TTM: So, figuring out how to build back a population of black abalone that are resilient to Withering Syndrome and its links to climate change is the next big step. There's actually another aspect of climate change that has had a dangerous impact on black abalone populations, and it's not an intuitive one: it's big forest fires. Fires leave a ton of debris behind them, and in summer 2020, there were two very large fires in Big Sur, California. These were followed by a series of heavy storms in January 2021, which caused massive debris flows that traveled down to the ocean. This was disastrous news for BART, because 70% of healthy black abalone live around the Big Sur area. And this was supposed to be the population that formed the core group for recovery of the species. A team led by Professor Raimondi and graduate student Wendy Bragg went in and had to carefully dig through sediment and debris to rescue black abalone and translocate them safely to a lab. They kept them in the lab until a few months ago, when they were translocated back into the field. While this certainly demonstrates how much havoc climate change can wreak on black abalone, it also has a lesson of hope. Researchers rescued hundreds of black abalone successfully from the debris, kept them in the lab for months, and most of them survived to be released back into the wild once the danger had passed. In the coming years, BART will be able to apply the lessons learned from the Big Sur rescue to other black abalone translocation efforts.
We talked a little about the importance of black abalone in the last episode, but let's connect that to conservation efforts. Why are so many different people, from academic researchers to federal agencies, to even, as Susan Wang told me, guitar companies, so invested in protecting these snails? Well, the guitar companies can use abalone shells in their instruments, but in the other cases, it's less straightforward. Let's start with the ecological perspective. Here's Ben Becker, a National Park Service Science Advisor and marine biologist.
Ben Becker: So, the black abalone being lost is one part of that puzzle, one piece of the puzzle that is a healthy marine coastal ecosystem. I think that losing any individual species is really sad and a tragedy, but even before that, once species are just brought down to really low levels, they're no longer ecologically even really functioning. They're not serving as food for another species, they're not for predating and grazing down algae as they normally would have in the past. So, thinking broader than just the individual species, which is important, it's really about preserving ecosystems in all the parks that we can so that we have healthy functioning ecosystems for human use and enjoyment, but also for the value that they have in their own right, and also for the value of passing those down on to our next generations.
TTM: The importance of black abalone to their intertidal ecosystems is clear. But what I wasn't expecting was that nearly everyone I talked to highlighted a different importance: the cultural value of black abalone to humans.
SuW: When we first listed black abalone and designated critical habitat, we get public comments as part of that process, and the most interesting public comments we got were, you know, from people who were just sharing, they remember as a kid, um going out with their families to the beaches and collecting abalone and cooking them up on the beach and, you know, having that that time together as a family. And those are great memories, and that was part of our culture in California, and because of the decline of black abalone and other abalone species, this younger generation growing up, we don't have that same experience. But abalone are really a big part of our culture in California, as well as for like the Indigenous groups in California, abalone are a huge part of the culture there.
StW: When you think about, particularly before the disease wiped out black abalone populations, most of them in Southern California, the black abalone was considered like the quintessential tidepool animal. I mean, everybody that is over the age of 50, I'll just throw that number out there, right? That may not be the most accurate age, but older individuals that grew up on the west coast speak very highly of abalone and in their first encounters in the intertidal zone, they're always talking about abalone.
TTM: When I asked Nate Fletcher, UC Santa Cruz research specialist, what his favorite species in the intertidal zone was, he immediately said black abalone. But when I asked him why, it took him a while to think carefully about what his gut told him instinctively. Finally, he gave me this answer.
NF: I think…abalone in general, people have such a strong connection to them, which goes back hundreds of years, because they were an important food source for Indigenous tribes and supported recreational fisheries. They were historically, economically important. They still have intrinsic value. They're something that people seem to care about a lot, compared to other invertebrates, I mean they're just a snail, in the intertidal, but people do have a strong connection to them.
TTM: Hillary Renick, who is Northern Pomo, from Noyo River Indian Community, Sherwood Valley Rancheria, Hopland Shanel, and Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribes, taught me that in asking the question of why black abalone are important, I revealed my Western assumption that everything needs to be assigned a known value to be valuable. I had read stories about Abalone Woman, who was covered in glittering abalone shells that formed the source of all light and hoped to hear more. But I went in without contemplating the lens of my questions about Traditional Ecological Knowledge of black abalone, and in that sense, played my own part in perpetuating a colonialist system of science. When I asked her if she knew of any stories, Hillary said:
Hillary Renick: It's really hard to take like one story and explain eons and millennia of interconnectedness across the landscape through time, through families, through kinship networks, because it's so complex, and you never know who this...who the receiver is, if they are looking at it respectfully. Stories are ways of teaching the next generation about how the interconnectedness is of the world, of everything that you do affects you inadvertently, it comes back to you, right? And that the ancestors are always watching. So, the stories could change depending on what band, and of course, what teaching. So, stories that involve Abalone Woman, told to you when you're like 5 years old, might be a core morals training, something that you need to learn. But it's told to you in a way that it includes items from your environment, and it could change. You know, as a girl becomes a woman, that story might change from, it might include Seaweed Woman, who had the beautiful black hair, that was trying to take the person that you wanted to be with. Just like everything else, I think the stories are dynamic and changing.
TTM: I learned a valuable lesson from Hillary about how stories are incredibly important sources of knowledge that should be viewed in the contexts that they are meant to be told. Much of this knowledge is sacred to Indigenous people and nations, and to share sacred knowledge involves a level of trust that requires time, reciprocity, and honesty. I hope that this podcast can serve as a building block towards that trust and be a platform for integrating Western science with Traditional Ecological Knowledge, especially since this knowledge is so important, but often kept out of Western scientific narratives. Maybe we can better serve black abalone by merging what we know about them from multiple perspectives. Hillary shared her thoughts on Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK:
HR: TEK. It's the knowledge of the landscape, it's the knowledge of how the land, the air, the water, the cultural resources, the trees, the upstream, how the biggest redwood trees are connected to the end of the river and the fish and how the abalone, the Abalone People have lived and traded on the landscape for millennia. It's really hard to take just one species out, from the tribal worldview, to look at it independently. I think that's part of the problem too. Acknowledging that the world is a living, breathing, dynamic ecosystem, moving, ebbing and flowing through time, is something that we acknowledge. So even though the abalone or specifically the black abalone is important, really there's no species that just stands out by itself. Just as we are interconnected, so is every little creature out there.
TTM: Luckily, there's hope for these "little creatures," which have stirred the hearts and minds of humans for so long. Following the 2015 El Niño and warm water blob events that once again wiped out recovering populations, Steve Whitaker and other researchers started seeing exponential increases in black abalone in multiple sites at the Channel Islands. Although the reason for this is not fully known, and we have not seen the same exponential growth in other parts of the California coastline yet, some think it may be partly due to a viral phage that can predate upon the bacterium that causes Withering Syndrome. More research is needed, but most of the people I talked to are hopeful for the future of black abalone:
BB: So, I do have an optimistic view of restoration of black abalone, and part of that is because given enough protection and enough time, they're doing better in Southern California. So, I think that a big theme of continuing to protect, nurture, and not damage our healthy California coastal marine ecosystems and not putting too much stress on them, direct stress that we might put on them through too much use or too much extraction, we also indirect stress from climate change that's going to take a little longer for us to get a handle on, but trying to minimize all of those impacts so that when pressure is alleviated on something like the black abalone due to the Withering Foot Syndrome or due to poaching, they can quickly respond through their natural processes of reproduction.
StW: So, taking all that together, I have a very positive outlook for black abalone in general. The issue will be, along Southern California, where we're seeing very few individuals present, we are going to have to replenish those populations, I believe. I don't know that they will recover on their own, just based on the fact that their individuals are spread so far apart. But that being said, we did have...we do have examples on the islands where we never found abalone for years in a row, and then all the sudden they start showing up. So, I'll leave it at that, and hopefully leave it on a positive note.
TTM: And I'll leave it at this: I hope that you, dear listeners, can take away two messages from this podcast. First, a better understanding of the story behind black abalone. And second, a greater sense of kinship with this amazing creature, who deserves our concern and our care because of its beauty, its resiliency, and above all else, the very fact that it exists in our dynamic and interconnected world.
[Ambient intertidal sounds]
TTM: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Natural Laboratory from Point Reyes National Seashore. My name is Theodora Mautz. Many thanks to Mark Lipman for the ambient intertidal zone recordings. Thanks again to all of the black abalone experts who shared their time and knowledge with me, to MaryHelen Sherman for her invaluable guidance, as well as to the Point Reyes National Seashore Association and the National Park Service for their support. And finally, thank you to the black abalone for sharing their existence with all of us.
[Ambient intertidal sounds]
Citations: Vileisis, Ann. Abalone: The Remarkable History and Uncertain Future of California's Iconic Shellfish. Oregon State University Press, 2020.
Audio credits: Ambient Intertidal Recordings - Mark Lipman
After Withering Syndrome devastated black abalone populations in Southern California, an interdisciplinary team teamed up to figure out how to save them. Theodora Mautz speaks with a handful of experts on strategies, lessons learned, and next steps for black abalone recovery. In this second episode of a two-part Natural Laboratory podcast series on black abalone, join us as we learn about what happened next to this resilient species, and why we should care.