Among the shellfish in the state’s marine waters is the pinto abalone, a species once found on dinner plates.

The pinto abalone is the only abalone species native to the Salish Sea, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. After decades of population decline due to overharvesting, it is getting some help from a group working to restore the species.

That restoration effort is largely being done in Skagit County.

Government agencies and organizations including the Puget Sound Restoration Fund and the Skagit Marine Resources Committee are involved with the effort.

Since the restoration project began in 2009, about 7,400 hatchery-raised pinto abalone have been introduced into Skagit County waters near Fidalgo and Guemes islands, and about 3,600 in neighboring San Juan County, according to the recent project report.

The report suggests the project is on the cusp of success.

It concludes that the pinto abalone released in Skagit County have up to a 23 percent survival rate.

“We’re seeing that survival has been good, growth has been good,” Puget Sound Restoration Fund project lead Josh Bouma said. “Now that we’re getting to the point where we are six, seven years after (the first releases) ... it’s really exciting.”

Pinto abalone play a key role in the environment by keeping algae under control, which benefits kelp and other marine species.

“It all has to do with keeping the system in balance and healthy,” Skagit Marine Resources Committee project lead Paul Dinnel said.

If this restoration project is successful, it will likely be used as a model to restore the species in other parts of the state.

The decline

While pinto abalone populations have declined along the West Coast, the species is most imperiled in Washington.

Pinto abalone have been on NOAA’s species of concern list since 2004. Washington also considers it a species of concern.

Pinto abalone in the state’s waters declined rapidly when recreational harvesting was allowed between 1959 and 1994, according to the state Department of Fish & Wildlife. After harvesting was discontinued, the population continued to decline.

Since the 1990s, the state has intermittently surveyed pinto abalone at 10 sites around the San Juan Islands, including near Cypress and Fidalgo islands in Skagit County. Based on those surveys, Fish & Wildlife estimated in 2013 that the population had declined 92 percent during the previous 20 years.

A Fish & Wildlife dive team spent three days this week searching for wild pinto abalone at three of the survey sites. During that time, the team found two pinto abalone.

“It’s highly discouraging ... when you’ve gone and seen abalone plastered all over the rocks and then come back and there is nothing,” said Fish & Wildlife shellfish biologist Michael Ulrich, who remembers seeing more of the abalone during his first dives in 2003.

The population is believed to still be imperiled primarily because of poaching.

“After the recreational fishery was closed there was a lot of poaching, and that just drove the populations down into oblivion essentially because they got to the point they couldn’t successfully reproduce,” Dinnel said.

Abalone of all kinds, including pinto abalone, are sought as a food delicacy and because their shells — which are multicolored and shimmer like pearls — are a popular material for jewelry and designs on guitars.

Restoration efforts

In an effort to bring the marine snails back to the area, Fish & Wildlife and the University of Washington partnered in 2002 to develop a hatchery program at a NOAA research lab in Seattle.

The following year, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund joined the effort, followed by the Northwest Straits Foundation, the Skagit Marine Resources Committee, Western Washington University, area tribes and shellfish companies.

The project partners began gathering adult pinto abalone from areas in San Juan and Skagit counties, then allowed them to spawn in the hatchery, said Bob Sizemore, lead research scientist for Fish & Wildlife’s shellfish dive team.

Because the wild population is sparse, it can take divers several days to locate a single adult pinto abalone to take to the hatchery, he said. If those pinto abalone were left in the wild, they would likely never reproduce.

Melissa Neuman, who handles pinto abalone recovery for NOAA, said figuring out how to raise the young abalone in the hatchery was a challenge.

Since that was mastered, hundreds of pinto abalone have been released each year at multiple sites.

When released at about 18 months old, the pinto abalone are as small as a human thumbnail, Ulrich said.

Divers have reported in recent years seeing pinto abalone at the release sites that now fill the palm of their hands.

The hope is to see the released pinto abalone produce young so that the population will grow on its own. Project partners said it will take time to see evidence of that because it takes several years before pinto abalone start reproducing.

“This is a grand experiment,” Dinnel said. “It’s going to take a lot of patience and persistence to see results. We’re hoping in the next few years to see juveniles outside of the area where they’ve been planted, which would indicate success.”

Project partners plan to continue raising, releasing and monitoring pinto abalone until the species is restored.

“It’s hard to know if that’s a process that’s going to take 10 years or 25 years or 60 years,” Bouma said.

Divers from Fish & Wildlife and the Puget Sound Restoration Fund have returned to the release sites over the years to conduct surveys.

Project partners recently estimated the released pinto abalone have had between a 7 percent and 23 percent survival rate.

“If we’re getting an estimated 20-something percent of survival, we’re doing quite well I would say,” Dinnel said.

The 7 percent survival rate is based on what divers have observed. The higher estimate takes into consideration the reclusive behavior of pinto abalone, which often hide between rocks and blend in with their surroundings.

Missing data

Although various government agencies have acknowledged the peril of pinto abalone, the species has not received formal protection.

NOAA determined in 2014 that the species did not qualify for federal Endangered Species Act protection, largely because of a lack of data about its population before its extreme decline was noted in the 1990s.

The agency concluded that without that data, it was difficult to determine just how imperiled the species was.

“It was pretty clear that we were really lacking a lot of information for a lot of areas. We certainly didn’t have good baseline data to tell us the historic abundance ... It was tough to know whether what we were seeing (was unhealthy),” NOAA’s Neuman said.

Since then, the state and Canadian governments have taken their own steps to study and restore the species.

“We don’t know enough about this species, we need to learn more about it and we need to keep track of the status,” Neuman said.

When NOAA was considering federal protection for pinto abalone, the status of the species varied in different parts of the West Coast. That played a role in NOAA’s determination that the species overall was not likely at high risk of going extinct.

“We were all over the board with the species,” Neuman said. “We had areas where there was decline, we had some areas where there were signs of new recruitment (with sightings of young pinto abalone), and we had some areas where there was absolutely no information.”

The status review did reinforce how badly the population was doing in Washington, which was no surprise to state officials.

“The folks in the state of Washington knew well before we added the species to the species of concern list that things were going south for pinto abalone in the state,” Neuman said. “That work has been going on for a long time.”

A model project

For now, the restoration effort in the state is focused around the islands in Skagit and San Juan counties, where the species once thrived.

{span}{span}”The heart of the pinto abalone population was here in Skagit and San Juan counties,” said Caroline Gibson, executive director of the Northwest Straits Foundation. “It was an overharvest issue. That population just plummeted.” {/span}{/span}

Project partners hope the work done here will encourage additional efforts throughout the area.

“We hope it’s kind of a prototype for other marine resource committees ... to get involved with us in helping to restore this great resource,” Dinnel said.

Ulrich and Sizemore said Fish & Wildlife is interested in expanding the restoration effort to include releases in other parts of the state.

NOAA’s Neuman said the effort in Skagit and San Juan counties could also serve as a model for restoring other imperiled abalone species, such as the endangered white abalone found along the coast of Southern California.

How long it will take to restore the pinto abalone in Washington is unclear. However long it takes, the project partners plan to keep up the effort.

“We would like to recover pinto abalone populations, but to achieve that goal — we’re probably not going to see it happen in our careers or our lifetimes,” Ulrich said.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199,

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