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Bringing Abalone Back from the Brink

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Many Hornblower crew members are excited about ocean wildlife.  Hornblower Captain and First Officer Nancy Caruso takes this many steps farther by dedicating her life to preserving and protecting one of the ocean’s key habitats—kelp forests.  Nancy’s focus is on the green abalone, a vital and rare species of marine snail that helps keep kelp forests in balance by grazing on a variety of marine algae (seaweeds), which prevents overpopulations these marine algae and lets kelp forests flourish.  Green abalones, along with six other abalone species, were once abundant along California coasts, dotting the rocks like “postage stamps”.  First Native Americans and then residents of the coastal regions remember wading out to collect abalones for food from the intertidal regions of the shorelines.  Most people saved the stunning, iridescent shells as keepsakes to decorate their homes, for jewelry, and even to add depth to pathways and hardscaping.  In the early- to mid- 1900s, abalone became a symbol of the California lifestyle.

Unfortunately, populations of all abalone species plummeted due to waves of over-collection by commercial canning fisheries (which sent canned abalone to China and Japan) and also local beachgoers.  Then in the 1970s, abalone collected by divers became a highly-prized (and highly-priced) delicacy in California restaurants.  Soon everyone in America had to dine on abalone, and this iconic ocean animal became a rare inhabitant of the coastal waters and many species hovered on the brink of extinction.  By the 1990’s, the abalone fishery had collapsed and regulations were finally instated to make abalone collection illegal in Southern California.  Even with legal protection, abalone populations failed to rebound.

To help green abalone, Nancy commits her time and efforts outside of work to a green abalone restoration project directed through a non-profit organization that she founded called Get Inspired in Orange County, California.  This program brings restoration programs into local classrooms and has a volunteer base of more than 10,000 kids and 300 adults.  Nancy has taught students in middle school and high school how to grow kelp, white seabass, and now abalone in their classroom in easy to care for marine systems which are then restored to the ocean.  This fosters a sense of empowerment and stewardship in the kids and builds their understanding of math, life sciences, and engineering.  The adult volunteers are scuba divers and snorkelers that have helped Nancy by planting kelp, white seabass, and green abalone in carefully selected, near-shore reefs and monitoring numbers and survival rates.  Many years of studies have proven that the green abalone can be restored to the local reefs and kelp forests.

A huge milestone in the green abalone restoration project was reached last November when Nancy and her team successfully spawned wild green abalone for the project. They will continue to spawn them and place them in LA and Orange County classrooms and public aquariums until they are big enough to outplant.  Once the abalone reach about four inches long, they will be reproductively mature and planted into monitored ocean habitat.  Ideally, the green abalone population will once again flourish along the California coastline and keep kelp forests in balance and provide a food and cultural resource for future generations.

You can help conserve green abalone by donating to the Get Inspired Project at http://www.gofundme.com/abalone or http://www.getinspiredinc.org and by sharing your experiences and knowledge of abalone with others.