Wildlife Detectives: Pinto Abalone, Poached To Near Extinction, Poised For A Comeback

Jun 3, 2015

Pinto abalone were poached almost to extinction by the end of the 90s.

The tasty meat of this shellfish, combined with its mother of pearl shell, made pinto abalone a target for illegal harvest, and a delicacy in Asia.

Thousands upon thousands of them were taken from Puget Sound.

Josh Bouma, a shellfish biologist with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, leads a team that has raised nearly 7,000 juvenile abalone in a hatchery.
Credit Katie Campbell / Earthfix

You can hear the pride in Josh Bouma’s voice as he peers down into a tank at the NOAA labs in Mukilteo. Bouma is a shellfish biologist with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund and manages a captive breeding operation for pinto abalone. He’s raised these abalone from tiny larvae.

Josh Bouma: "I’ll show you one of our adult broodstock animals as well."

The adult pinto abalone’s oval shell shines a deep, ruby red.

This is the only type of abalone native to the waters of the Northwest but there are so few of them left in Puget Sound, that scientists say they aren’t reproducing. Since the early 90s, the population has decreased by more than 90 percent.

Pinto abalone are shy creatures. In the wild, they hide in rocky underwater crevices to avoid predators. But in the lab, Bouma’s had to improvise.

Josh Bouma: “Those are, we call them Abalone condos. It’s a piece of PVC pipe cut in half. They really like dark overhangs. They like to be in places where they feel safe.”

The pinto abalone scuttles out from beneath its hiding place, its fleshy spotted undercarriage shuttles it along like a lady running in long, rippling skirts.

It’s that tasty flesh that got this shellfish into so much trouble. The meat is a delicacy in Asia, where illegally-harvested abalone from Puget Sound used to fetch top dollar.

Harvest regulations for the pinto abalone on the West Coast.
Credit Puget Sound Restoration Fund

Craig Welch: “Abalone poaching in Puget Sound throughout the late 80s and early to mid 90s was huge.”

Craig Welch was a reporter for the Seattle Times during the heyday of abalone poaching. He wrote a book about it, called “Shell Games: Rogues, smugglers and the hunt for nature’s bounty”.

In the book, Welch profiles an abalone poacher named Dave Ferguson. He was a tough guy - had done prison time before he got busted with illegally harvested abalone in 1994.

And Ferguson had poached a LOT of abalone - enough to buy an expensive fishing boat he flamboyantly named the “Abalone Made,” that's - m-a-d-e.

But when the cops busted him, he wasn’t so tough. Welch says he told them everything.

Craig Welch: “He said, well, I myself have stolen enough abalone in Puget Sound to buy this commercial boat that I own, and to buy my jeep cherokee. And I can tell you that there are many other people poaching at the same level. So we’re talking 10s of thousands of dollars over the course of months and months, so it was a lot.”

Instead of doing jail time, Ferguson began working as an undercover agent for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. He lead officials to numerous busts and clued them in on the dark underbelly of shellfish trafficking in Puget Sound. But he eventually skipped town and officials haven’t heard from him since.

Pinto abalone are still struggling to recover, and scientists like Josh Bouma and others are trying to help.

Bob Sizemore: "Ok we’re here."

Today, the team is putting on dive gear, grabbing tubes full of young abalone they raised in the lab, and jumping off the back of the research boat.

They’ll dive 35 feet or so below where we’re idling off the coast of a rocky island in the San Juans. Then they’ll deposit the young abalones.

These creatures are broadcast spawners. That means that males and females meet up and release sperm and eggs into the water to make larvae.

But if there aren’t enough adults, that can’t happen.

So for the past 5 years the team has been releasing young abalone at a handful of sites around the San Juans. They tag them so they can ID them later on.

Bob Sizemore has been monitoring abalone since the 90s for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says that now, when they go back to sites like this, they’re seeing the same babies they released.

Bob Sizemore: “This is the best. This is a culmination of lots and lots of work...and it feels good to have all these efforts come toat a point in time where we can make a difference. It’s awesome.”

In these small pockets of Puget Sound, Sizemore says the population has grown to levels where there are now enough adults to spawn naturally.

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