Just as he brought the snails out it started to rain. Luckily these are animals that like to get wet – in fact they need it to survive.
“If they are out of water for any longer than five minutes you might want to give them a gentle dunk,” said Josh Bouma, abalone program director at Puget Sound Restoration Fund, as he filled two cages with the rare snail.
Bouma recently visited Orcas to install “remote nurseries” at locations where volunteers can monitor and care for the abalone.
“It’s like releasing babies to new foster parents,” said Rochelle Severson, who with her husband Cory has agreed to care for 200 abalone that will live in two cages attached to their Orcas Island dock.
There are six cages being set up at three northwest locations and two are on the San Juans – one on Bell Island and one on Orcas Island.
Bouma said he wants the cages installed for at least four months, but the Seversons can keep the project going as long as they want.
“If they [Seversons] have a good time we can leave them out longer,” Bouma said with a wide smile.
Known for its iridescent shell and excellent flavor, pinto abalone, also called northern abalone, have been harvested from the Salish Sea for centuries. Coast Salish people used the shell for decorative inlay in woodwork, stone or metal, according to “Understanding Northwest Coast Art” by Cheryl Shearer. It was also used to decorate clothing and as a food source.
Recreational abalone fishing was closed in 1994 to help with recovery of diminishing populations. Despite those efforts northern abalone were federally listed as a species of concern in Washington in 2004. That same year the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife showed that abalone populations continued to decline despite the closure on fishing.
A number of funded studies have looked at why the population of this native mollusk has not recovered. Bouma said that poaching is one factor that has negatively affected the population. The fact that the animals have to be close together in high density to spawn may also contribute to their decline.
As scientists continue to study this diminishing species, they also have learned how the shellfish was once abundant on Pacific Northwest shores.
Long ago, low tides in the northwest coastal regions were called “abalone tides,” because of the abundant intertidal populations of this colorful snail.
“Sadly, we don’t call them abalone tides any more, probably because the abalone are mostly gone,” wrote SeaDoc Director and Chief Scientist Joe Gaydos and Scientist Kirsten Gilardi in a 2006 newsletter. “We are losing the northern abalone part of our cultural history and that of First Nations people both as a food item and as decorative shell.”
The SeaDoc Society, founded in 1999, conducts and sponsors scientific research in the inland waters of the Salish Sea. The society has been involved in abalone research since 2006.
Last fall, biologists from the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, University of Washington, Western Washington University and WDFW released thousands of hatchery-reared abalone.
Now biologists like Bouma are trying out the remote nursery idea.
The Seversons’ job duties include putting fresh algae for food in the cage every week and cleaning out rotting seaweed.
“They are grazers – mowing down whatever algae diatoms and benthic biofilm are on surface areas,” said Bouma.
The Seversons are also asked to keep track of how many animals die.
“We want to get a really good idea of survival,” said Bouma.
Rochelle, who grew up eating abalone, described them as tough and delicious.
“You had to pound them with a meat tenderizer, but they were tasty – cooked in flour in a hot pan with butter,” she said.
She also recalls admiring the beautiful abalone shells.
Those memories are part of the reason she wanted to be involved in the project.
For Bouma, he was drawn to this native shellfish because of its “charisma.”
“I liked the historical and cultural component that native tribes for generations harvested them for beads and shells,” he said. “And they are unique ecologically. They maintain the habitat. In the absence of abalone these nice clean rock reefs tend to get fouled with algae that just takes up space where other animals would settle, but maybe they won’t because a clean habitat isn’t available.”
The fate of the pinto abalone remains uncertain in Salish waters and the new nursery project’s future is just as unknown.
Bouma said the animals at the Seversons’ property will probably return to the abalone hatchery on the mainland. Ideally Bouma wants to put the nursery abalone in juvenile restoration sites – there are six in the San Juans.
But as he lowers the cages off the Seversons’ dock, the main objective – for the moment – is having good caregivers.
“We were looking for helicopter parents to hover around the cages,” he said with a laugh as Rochelle watched the snails like a new parent – excited and a little nervous. For more info on abalone visit, www.seadocsociety.org, www.restorationfund.org and www.pintoabalone.org.