Alaska’s abalone population, important to native lore, is getting new attention

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A pinto abalone rests on the rocky bottom in Southeast Alaska. Of all the abalone species found along the west coast of North America, the pinto abalone is the only one found in Alaskan waters. A multi-agency project is looking at ways to boost the exhausted population. (Photo by Ashley Bolwerk/Alaska Sea Grant)

There is only one species of abalone native to Alaskan waters, and a new project is underway to try to find ways to increase its depleted numbers.

An Alaskan abalone recovery task force is brainstorming ideas for bolstering the state’s vulnerable pinto abalone population, also known as northern abalone or, to indigenous peoples in the region , Gunxaa and Gúlaa. The task force includes representatives from state and federal agencies, tribal governments and others, including support from Alaska Sea Grant, a program based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks that provides education, research and marine technology.

It started with surveys of people in Southeast Alaska, where pinto abalones are part of native tradition.

The reception so far has been enthusiastic, said Alaska Sea Grant Fellow Ashely Bolwerk, the project’s community engagement manager.

“Everyone I talk to is really excited about abalone, so it’s a really fun topic to focus on,” said Bolwerk, who lives in Sitka and works on a fellowship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. .

Pinto abalones are found as far south as Baja California and as far north as southeast Alaska, but across the range numbers have been rare and patchy, according to NOAA Fisheries. . This inconsistency extends to Alaskan populations. For example, the population in Sitka Sound appears to be increasing, while abalone around Prince of Wales Island are hard to come by, Bolwerk said.

In Lingít, Haida, and Tsimshian traditions, pinto abalones are valued for their meat — and more. They were traditionally used for trade and their shells are materials incorporated into works of art.

But the shortages have left gaps in traditional practices and knowledge, Bolwerk said.

A pinto abalone displays its oval shell. Multi-colored shells, in varying patterns, protect abalones from predators. Pinto abalone populations have declined throughout the species’ range, which extends from Baja California to southeast Alaska. (Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries)

She was introduced to the subject through her research work as a graduate student working on a large project studying sea otter reintroduction off the coast of British Columbia. This led to her working on Prince of Wales Island and building relationships with the Tribal Government of Hydaburg, where members of the community told her of the serious decline of their precious resource.

“There are people in Hydaburg who don’t harvest abalone anymore because they don’t see enough of them on their sites and are kind of self-managing,” she said. Some say they haven’t harvested for so long that they’ve forgotten how to process the meat, she said. Also, “there’s a whole generation of kids who can recognize abalone shells in badges and things like that, but have no idea where the animal lives or what to do with it. what he looks like when he’s alive.”

Pinto abalone live 15 to 20 years and reproduce slowly and in erratic patterns, making them inherently at risk of depletion, according to NOAA. The species is listed as endangered in British Columbia and Washington state, although NOAA Fisheries in 2014 rejected requests for range-wide protections from the species. endangered species law.

Overexploitation by people has been largely responsible for recent declines across the range. Commercial harvesting was closed in various areas, including Alaska in 1996, although some very small-scale subsistence and personal-use harvesting continues in parts of the Southeast.

People aren’t the only abalone eaters. Sea otters have also been partly responsible for the decline of abalones. However, sea otters also have an important place in the ecosystem, eating creatures like sea urchins that might otherwise mow down kelp forests.

For the Alaska Abalone Recovery Task Force, the survey component of the project is expected to be completed in August, Bolwerk said. The results are expected to be presented to communities over the winter, she said. From there, the task force will consider potential reconstruction actions.

Possible responses include mariculture — either raising pinto abalone to adulthood or a more limited project that would help restore wild populations, Bolwerk said.

Habitat improvements or changes in the management of species that interact with pinto abalone are also possible. In British Columbia, for example, efforts are being made to increase the harvest of sea urchins, which compete with abalone for kelp and seaweed, Bolwerk said.

Another idea is an educational campaign to raise awareness of the multicolored sea snails that crawl along the rocky bottom. “Perhaps emphasizing its importance to local cultures and communities could help bring in more funding and raise awareness of the work that needs to be done,” Bolwerk said.

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