The marine snails that have been the focus of restoration efforts in Skagit County and surrounding areas for years are officially endangered.
The state Department of Fish & Wildlife Commission made the decision Friday to officially list the pinto abalone as a state endangered species.
Fish & Wildlife Research scientist Hank Carson said during the commission meeting that the listing has support from Skagit, Jefferson, Island and San Juan county officials as well as area conservation organizations.
The state-level determination means illegally harvesting the species — prized for its meat and shiny shell — will be a gross misdemeanor for first-time offenders and a felony for repeat offenders.
Carson said the listing is also beneficial for raising public awareness about the species and its long-time decline.
“The term ‘endangered species’ is widely understood,” he said.
Fish & Wildlife will write a pinto abalone recovery plan to outline ways to reduce threats and increase the population, as well as planning the expansion of recovery efforts to other parts of the state, according to a news release.
The state Legislature this year allocated $900,000 for pinto abalone recovery work through June 2021.
“Recovery of lesser-known species like the nearly depleted pinto abalone is critical for a healthy and more resilient Puget Sound and the salmon and orca whales we all love,” state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said in the release.
The pinto abalone is the only abalone species found in the state, according to Fish & Wildlife. At healthy numbers, the species benefits kelp and other marine species by keeping algae — its primary source of food — under control.
Due to a decline in the species in the 1990s, harvest has not been allowed since 1994. Still, the population continues to shrink, with Fish & Wildlife estimating a 97% reduction between 1992-2017.
Federal agencies consider the pinto abalone a species of concern, meaning it could be at risk of becoming threatened or endangered throughout its range from Alaska to Mexico.
The species is most imperiled, however, in Washington, according to state and federal agencies.
Not only do humans pursue the marine snails for food and use their shells for jewelry, but crabs, fish, sea otters and others find them tasty, too, according to Fish & Wildlife.
An effort to restore the population began in 2002. Since then a hatchery program has been developed, thousands of young pinto abalone have been released and surveys are conducted to monitor their survival.
The goal of the restoration effort is to halt the decline of pinto abalone populations in Skagit and San Juan counties and establish numbers that will be able to sustain themselves through reproduction.
Since 2009, about 22,600 hatchery-raised pinto abalone have been released in rocky underwater areas of Skagit and San Juan counties.
About 6,600 were released in April as part of an experiment to determine whether releasing them at a younger age affects their survival rate.
If it doesn’t, that means the hatchery program could produce and release more pinto abalone each year.
Carson said he’s hopeful the restoration work, along with the new status as a state endangered species, will help the species recover.
“Hopefully the deterrence to harvest — from increased penalties, or stigma of taking an endangered species — will help protect the restored populations in the future,” Carson said.