Ocean Optimism: Endangered Species Making A Comeback

 White Abalone. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

White Abalone. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From pollution to overfishing, a variety of human factors strain the wellbeing of marine populations throughout the world’s oceans. While certain species have so far proved resilient in the face of environmental change, others have suffered a much more devastating fate. From microorganisms to whales, endangered species are animals whose populations have witnessed a dramatic and rapid decline and who are at risk of extinction. This week’s discussion focused on three such species–white abalone, California sea otter, and humpback whale. Faced with the pressures of human consumption, these three creatures displayed the hallmarks of an endangered species. Rapid population decline has led to the disappearance of these species in their usual territorial waters and with that, a reduction in the size of the gene pool has weakened the existing population. These three species figured prominently in this week’s discussion because they represent stories of population recovery success. Through the concerted efforts of ecologists, researchers, and public officials, white abalone, humpback whales, and California sea otters have seen significant population recovery. As such, they are very fitting stories in our conversation about ocean optimism.

Had you treated yourself to a seafood meal before the 1990s, you might have enjoyed a delicacy not often seen on today’s menus: White Abalone steak. This tender mollusk was once as commonly found in the waters off the California coast as on a lucky diner’s plate. In class, we read an article about white abalone that described how unregulated harvesting took its toll on the white abalone fishery, causing a 99% decline in the population by the early 1990s. As a result, the government closed the fishery, banning all abalone harvesting in 1997 and four years later, designated the white abalone as an endangered species. This week’s article focused on the work of Dr. Kristin Aquilino, an abalone expert at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab. In an effort to grow the white abalone gene pool, Aquilino and other scientists have been searching for the rare wild specimens in the hopes of introducing new DNA into the small captive population. While Aquilino’s work is painstaking, this article offered us a glimpse into the achievements that are won every day in ocean conservation. After successfully adding a new, wild member to the captive population, Aquilino’s enthusiasm regarding the moment speaks volumes about this success story: “We now have enough captive white abalone to start testing the best methods for reintroduction to the wild once a permit is in place… and we’re hopeful” (Hoshaw, 2017).

In class, we were able to speak with Dr. Aquilino via videoconference. She passionately explained the importance of the white abalone to herself, her family, and to the cultural heritage of California. Dr. Aquilino’s enthusiasm was infectious as she chronicled the likely success of a breeding project that once seemed doomed to fail. She explained in the five years since they started breeding, yearly yields have increased from 12 to over 25,000. Today, there are approximately 8,000 juvenile white abalone living in the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab. They have not been released into the wild yet, as scientists continue to test and develop methods for introduction into the ocean.“We’re in a make-or-break situation right now with the wild population,” says Aquilino. “We put them in this mess, so it’s up to us to save them.”

 Sea Otter. Photo: Wikipedia

Sea Otter. Photo: Wikipedia

Another reason for optimism is the rebounding sea otter population in California, discussed in another article we read. Long prized for their incredibly warm and luxurious pelts, otters were hunted with blatant disregard for population health throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The result was the reduction of the California sea otter population to less than 50 individuals. In recent years, researchers have seen encouraging signs: like the otters at Morro Rock, California, sea otter populations seem to be growing and returning to areas long since inhabited by them. Some speculate that the cause of these promising trends might lie in a wasting syndrome afflicting California starfish populations, resulting in fewer starfish available to prey on sea urchins (the otter's main food supply). Morro Bay is also at the site of two marine protected areas, and others have speculated that the success of otters in this ecosystem might be linked to these areas - a topic we discussed in previous classes! Whatever the cause, marine conservationists are eager to do what they can to support sea otter restoration.

Additionally, we discussed the noticeable improvement in humpback whale populations. In the 19th to 20th century, humpbacks were heavily hunted primarily for whale oil, fertilizer, poultry meal and pet food, ultimately leading to the whale’s dramatic decline. As a result, the U.S. government officially banned commercial hunting of all whales in 1971, forcing the closure of the nation’s last whaling station along the San Francisco Bay. Since the banning of commercial hunting for whales, their numbers have greatly recovered which resulted in the federal government proposing the removal of the humpback whale from the endangered species list. Today, the population is estimated to be 21,000 in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, compared to a meager 1,400 in 1996. Furthermore, NOAA Fisheries recently reported that humpbacks were placed into 14 separate population groups around the world. Ten of those groups were declared “recovered” and given the authorization to be removed from the federal list of endangered species. Two groups were proposed to be changed from “endangered” to “threatened,” and two are to be left as “endangered.” Humans still present dangers to the whales, for example, collisions with ships and fishing gear. As a class, we tried to brainstorm possible solutions, for example finding a way for ships to detect the whales before contact.

We had an interesting discussion about how generations of people can have different experiences and attachments to endangered species. We thought about the fact that our generation has not been as impacted by endangered animals as much as the older generations, due to our lack of a direct reliance on these animals, which then creates a lack of awareness to the dangers these species are facing. While previous generations have changed their ways to accommodate for the lack of animals, our generation never had this initial contact or usage of these animals (for example, most students in our class couldn’t identify with eating abalone!). We agreed that we don’t commonly use whales, otters, or abalone for anything other than entertainment and tourism purposes. Our hope is that since our generation does not have the same attachment to some of these endangered species as other generations have had in the past, we will focus on conserving and protecting them rather than using them for our own consumption and amusement.

This blog was written by students in the UC Davis First Year Seminar: Ocean Optimism