In a dark fish tank at a government-run lab, a bright sea snail scuttles out from its hiding place.
It’s a pinto abalone, and its numbers are dangerously low in Washington state after decades of overharvesting and poaching. This little-known animal is a delicacy, still served in U.S. restaurants; its shell is a source of mother-of-pearl.
At the lab here, biologist Josh Bouma peers down at the abalone. "They really like dark overhangs," he says. "They like to be in places where they feel safe, so they hang out on the undersides."
This instinctive drive to stay hidden hasn't been enough to keep the pinto abalone safe from humans. The pinto abalone's historical West Coast range spanned marine waters from Baja, California to Alaska. But in Washington, among other places, rampant poaching and a loosely regulated recreational fishery pushed the pinto abalone close to extinction.
Bouma is a shellfish biologist with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. He’s part of a team that’s raising these creatures in a hatchery run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Once they reach full maturity, the abalone are released into the wild with the hope of reversing the species’ downward spiral.
“It’s the only [type of] abalone that we have in Washington,” Bouma said. “We have a responsibility to protect and restore the things that are unique to this ecosystem.”
The abalone’s rough shell shines a deep ruby red. A dappled, or pinto, skirt of flesh peaks out from beneath its shell, much like the undercarriage of any common garden snail, but brighter in color. The skirt is lined with tentacles that look like fine whiskers.
Bouma flips the abalone over onto its back and within seconds out snaps a long tongue-looking foot that it promptly and comically uses to flip itself back over.
That long foot has been the source of a lot of trouble for this species. It's a delicacy coveted in Asia and enjoyed in fine restaurants around the world. The pinto abalone's beautiful shell, rough and red on the outside and pearly soft pink on the inside, makes it a desirable trinket for divers in Puget Sound. Pinto abalone have been listed as a "species of concern" by NOAA since 2004.
Commercial harvesting of pinto abalone has been banned on the West Coast and in Canada. Oregon and Alaska still allow recreational harvest of this species..
“We’re going places where there should be wild abalone and they’re not there,” said Bob Sizemore, a research scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We’re not seeing any wild juveniles at all and we haven’t for 20 years.”
Pinto abalone poaching in Puget Sound was rampant in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s. People were poaching tens of thousands of abalone and selling them to local restaurants, markets and overseas.
Seattle Times reporter Craig Welch was covering marine science for the paper in the 1990s when he first became aware of the issue of shellfish poaching in Puget Sound. Welch wrote a book, Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers And The Hunt For Nature's Bounty.
The book profiled a man named Dave Ferguson and how he profited from poached pinto abalone around Port Angeles. According to Welch, Ferguson made enough money to buy himself a new Jeep Cherokee and a fishing boat named the Abalone Made.
When Department of Fish and Wildlife cops busted him in 1994, Ferguson confessed and later became an informant, according to the book.
Listen: Craig Welch talks about Dave Ferguson
"Dave Ferguson was very good at it. He would get out on the water and sidle up to people and chat 'em up," Welch said. "He was rough around the edges and nobody would have suspected a guy like that was working with the cops and he started feeding them information."
One day, Ferguson's boat exploded when he was on board. He spent weeks in the hospital and swore that it was sabotage and that other poachers were out to get him. He eventually resigned as an informant, headed to Alaska and, Welch writes, "was never heard from again." Ferguson never paid a fine or did any jail time for his poaching.
Efforts to locate Ferguson to interview him for this story were unsuccessful.
Wildlife managers think Ferguson trafficked between 25,000 and 40,000 illegally harvested abalone. And they have reason to believe he was not alone in harvesting more abalone than the law allows.
A long slow road to recovery
Bouma and Sizemore load tubes filled with hundreds of young hatchery-raised pinto abalone into their boat, the Clamdestine, and motor out to a small, rocky island in northern Puget Sound. This is one of six sites where the team has been planting thousands of juveniles over the past five years. They're hoping the population will grow to the point where natural spawning can occur.
Abalone are broadcast spawners. When conditions are right, males and females release thousands of eggs and sperm, some of which will collide in the water column and produce larvae. But Sizemore and others believe the wild adult population is now too small and spread apart for spawning to happen naturally.
Sizemore and Bouma put on dive gear and drop into the water off the back of the Clamdestine, tubes in hand. They'll install the tubes 30 feet or so below the surface and let the mollusks acclimate to their surroundings. In 24 hours, they'll return to remove the netting from the ends of the tubes and the abalone will be free to explore their new habitat, and hopefully, to multiply.
With the hatchery program in place, the pinto abalone population at this site has crossed a threshold and is expected to be large enough for natural reproduction to start occurring here.
"This is a culmination of lots and lots of work," Sizemore said before putting on his scuba mask.
These small reproductive pockets of abalone are just a drop in the bucket, Sizemore said; recovery from decades of poaching and overharvesting may still be years away.
Story and audio by Ashley Ahearn. Video by Ken Christensen.
Correction: May 19, 2015. An earlier version of this story did not correctly describe West Coast restrictions on harvesting pinto abalone. Commercial harvesting is banned on the West Coast of the United States and Canada. Oregon and Alaska still allow recreational harvesting.