Abalone are treasured — nearly to extinction

The Seattle Times
By Craig Welch
Seattle Times environment reporter

The authorities popped him near the docks in Port Angeles.

On a March afternoon in 1994, a sleek fishing boat — not-so-subtly named the Abalone Made — came ashore after puttering around Freshwater Bay. The waiting cops nabbed the captain and seized his contraband: 188 specimens of a rare Puget Sound mollusk, the pinto abalone, a strange, fist-sized snail stuffed in algae-encrusted shells.

The thief would confess he’d been stealing the tasty seafood delicacies by the tens of thousands — enough to pay off his 26-foot commercial diving boat and buy a new Jeep Cherokee. The real damage wouldn’t be known until much later.

At the time, Puget Sound’s lone abalone species was already hurtling toward extinction. More than with any other creature in these waters, illicit harvesting may have pushed it over the edge.

Today, so few of the shellfish remain that scientists with kitchen utensils and model-train glue are trying to mate survivors in a lab. They plan this summer to transplant the creatures’ offspring in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and hope that will jump-start a population nearing collapse. Similar efforts are under way in British Columbia, but it’s too soon to know if the attempts will succeed.

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