Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Lonely Abalone Seeks Life Partner

Young Abalone
Photo by Wendy Feltham
When you walk into the Marine Exhibit, it is like entering a different world. I have always been fascinated with the sea and all it has to offer. Growing up on the coast of Maine I spent my summers exploring every tide pool I could find. I have carried this fascination throughout my life. The Marine Exhibit allows you to peek into the tide pool and underwater environment. It gives me the same excitement I found in those childhood summers. Next to the Marine Exhibit is the classroom, a space many students have sat waiting and wiggling, before entering this different realm. One day last week, I opened the door and let the students enter this magical land. Their faces lit up with such energy and huge smiles. I told my coworker that I felt like Willie Wonka opening the doors to the chocolate factory. This fascination is something that many people have when it comes to the marine world. All of the creatures and plant life are full of stories, facts, and memories for the staff, volunteers, and visitors in the Marine Exhibit. One invertebrate, in particular, holds a special place in the hearts of many at the Marine Science Center.
The Pinto, or Northern, Abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana) is one of my favorite creatures in the Marine Exhibit here at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. The pinto abalone are marine snails found from Sitka, Alaska to Point Conception, California.  They are often referred to as, “the lonely abalone”. This name comes from the fact that their population is too small and spread out to reproduce successfully. Abalone use a reproductive strategy known as broadcast spawning that involves the male and female counterparts releasing eggs and sperm into the water. Abalone broadcast spawn between April and June. If successful reproduction occurs, the abalone will remain in a planktonic phase, floating in the ocean for 10-14 days before settling onto a rocky ocean floor.
As herbivores, pinto abalone scrape algae off rocks with their file-like tongue, known as a radula. As they grow larger they began to eat brown and red kelp;  whichever one they consume more of is reflected in the color of their shell.  Abalone have a number of predators, including sunflower stars, sea otters, some species of fish, and humans. To defend themselves, they use their muscular foot to stick to rocks and their shell as a shield. Abalone spend most of their time hidden among rocks.  As they grow, their shells become covered in a plethora of life, including algae and sponges, which makes for good camouflage. Since the 1990s, pinto abalone populations have declined more than 90% and they  have been a species of concern since 2004. The abalone population is in such great decline due to overharvesting. Although their foot is a delicacy , abalone fishing in Washington was outlawed in 1994. A great effort has been put into the restoration of pinto abalone in the Salish Sea.

In 2013, The Port Townsend Marine Science Center partnered with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund to help raise pinto abalone. We were  given 200 baby abalone,  no bigger than your thumbnail. One hundred of them were raised in a tank and the other half were raised in a structure resembling  a beehive that was submerged in water off of the dock.  Staff and volunteers took very special care of these young gastropods by feeding them three times a week and weighing and measuring them once a month.
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Tagging the small abalone
Photo by Wendy Feltham
“The latter tasks weren’t always easy”, recalls volunteer and Board Member Wendy Feltham. The abalone would often stick to the surface they were being measured on and the only way to get them to move was by placing one of their predators close by. The sunflower star has a voracious appetite for pinto abalone. If you put a sunflower star in close proximity to the abalone they will let go of the surface they’re on. To help record data, some of the abalone were tagged.  The device used to tag them is the same one used to tag bees.
PTMSC volunteers Katherine Jensen and Sue Long with young abalone
Photo by Wendy Feltham

The Port Townsend Marine Science Center was able to keep twenty of these abalone for the Marine Exhibit. The other 180  were returned to the Puget Sound Restoration Fund facility. They were kept in tanks on site and eventually  returned to the Salish Sea. The Pinto Abalone is a unique creature, one that I was drawn to right away here at the Marine Science Center. They get so excited to eat with their tentacles waving in search of their green kelp goodies. Learning the story of the time spent to raise these invertebrates is one of the many ways the Port Townsend Marine Science continues to wow me. The work the Puget Sound Restoration Fund is doing to restore the pinto abalones’ populations is truly inspirational.
“It is still possible for us to keep an iconic and treasured species from blinking out—on our watch. Our goal at PSRF: to rebuild sustainable populations of the Salish Sea’s only native abalone—the mighty Haliotis kamtschatkana—so that, once again, pinto abalone can graze our subtidal waters and successfully reproduce in the wild.” -Puget Sound Restoration Fund. http://www.restorationfund.org/projects/pintoabalone
A present day abalone feeding
Photoby Brooke Askey

The pinto abalone are just one of the many amazing and fascinating creatures to be found in the Marine Exhibit. I look forward to continuing to be wowed  by the marine life which surrounds me here in the Salish Sea. I, too, feel like a kid in the chocolate factory when I enter the Marine Exhibit, both surprised and in awe of the fascinating underwater world.

Please consider making a gift today to support kids education, animals, and a healthy Salish Sea: ptmsc.org/get-involved/donate


Sarah Croston is the Natural History and Volunteer Educator and an AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

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