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    Kristin Aquilino holds a white abalone at Bodega Marine Lab.


    White abalone adults that spawned at Bodega Marine Lab.


    Kristin Aquilino holds a full-grown white abalone, bearing a green ID tag, from successful spawning at UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab.

UC Davis Bodega Bay lab plays matchmaker for endangered abalone

Published: Sunday, Jul. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 29, 2013 - 8:38 am

BODEGA BAY – The lighting? It's just right. The temperature? Perfectly set. The music? Barry White, of course.

These are the seemingly perfect conditions to save a species, like the white abalone, from extinction.

It's a scene playing out in the least romantic of settings: inside water tanks at UC Davis' Bodega Marine Laboratory.

It is here that scientists have assumed the unlikely role of "mollusk matchmaker."

In doing so, the lab has accomplished the first successful captive spawning of white abalone in nearly a decade.

That is no small accomplishment for a species whose populations have declined by 90 percent since the 1960s.

"Today only a few thousand white abalone exist off the coast of Southern California," said Gary Cherr, director of the UC Davis Bodega Bay lab.

In 2001, the white abalone, long known as having the tastiest meat in the abalone family, became the first invertebrate to be listed by the National Marine Fishery Service as an endangered species.

This followed the lead of California, which closed the white abalone fishery in 1996.

In the mid 1970s, the fishery brought in more than 60,000 white abalone. By 1985, overfishing saw yearly catch numbers dwindle to less than 5,000.

The large mollusks were considered a delicacy, and their mother-of-pearl-lined shells were seen in many households.

The population continues to decline due to a triumvirate of disease, climate change and an inability of males and females to spawn at the same time, said Kristin Aquilino, head of the white abalone captive breeding program.

"Abalone are broadcast spawners, meaning they release their eggs and sperm into the water column," said Aquilino.

However, white abalone populations have dropped so steeply that males and females do not live in close enough proximity to each other for the sperm to find and fertilize the eggs.

At the Bodega Bay lab, where 60 white abalone live in captivity, scientists are inducing spawning by putting males and females in separate tanks and keeping them at the right temperature and under the right lighting conditions. This, said Aquilino, should allow spawning at the same time.

Spawning success in a lab did occur in Southern California in 2001 and 2003, and then came a dry period. During the first few years of the program at Bodega Bay, where the captive breeding program commenced in 2010, no successful breeding was accomplished. "We were only getting the females to spawn," said Aquilino.

Scientists became aware that the adult abalone were spawning infrequently, and that when they did spawn not enough reproductive material was produced.

And so began experiments on how to best set the mood for both males and females to spawn. And some of them included playing Barry White through a stereo – more for the scientists' benefit than for the abalone, Aquilino said.

A sophisticated lighting system was installed, connected to an astronomical clock that mimicked the sunrise and sunset patterns in the white abalone's breeding territory in the Channel Islands of Southern California.

Kismet struck on the sleepy afternoon last year when a male abalone spawned a tiny drop of diluted sperm, which the breeding team used to fertilize a small batch of eggs.

"We were ecstatic," said Aquilino. "In our care was a very small but important hope for this entire species." After the embryos hatched, the larvae were carefully monitored as they evolved through their "swimming state" – akin to toddlers walking.

Thereafter, the young abalone were put in tanks with their favorite food: algae.

"Have you ever heard of helicopter parenting?" said Aquilino. "We were essentially that for the abalone species, but instead of one or two children there are hundreds, or thousands."

Even after the first success, huge challenges remain; 99 percent of the babies did not survive.

"We hope we can trick these animals into spawning at other times of the year than their spring spawning season," she said.

Aquilino and others at the lab showed off the juveniles with the pride of young parents. The tiny abalone were seen hiding inside a pipe-like enclosure, their color a dark, blood-like red.

"One of the main goals for our program is to take these animals and put then into the wild to foster the wild population, said Laura-Rogers Bennett, with the department of Fish and Wildlife.

To that end, Bennett and others have been studying how best to build artificial reefs for placement near the Channel Islands. The key may be placing the abalone deeper in the sea, in colder water, than where they normally reside.

Living in colder waters may help the abalone avoid a disease called "withering syndrome," which is brought on by a bacterium that prevents them from properly digesting food. This causes their muscular foot to shrink.

The disease manifests in warm water, which is why the Bodega Bay lab, with its colder waters, became the ideal place for the captive breeding program.

The UC Davis Bodega Bay lab is one of the largest marine labs in California. During the summer, 160 staff members and students work at the center, and during the school year there are 100, said Cherr. The facility offers an undergraduate and graduate curriculum, and also has housing for its students. The lab, originally affiliated with UC Berkeley, became a UC Davis-run facility in the mid 1980s.

The lab is partnering with the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, UC Santa Barbara, Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, and Ty Warner Sea Center in Santa Barbara in efforts to protect the white abalone from extinction.

Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Edward Ortiz

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