The Northern Abalone is a marine mollusc whose meat has great commercial value as it is considered a gourmet delicacy. Due to commercial overfishing and poaching, it is now listed as threatened in Canada. Parks Canada, the Haida Nation and other partners are working to restore this species.
It is illegal to harvest the Northern Abalone in British-Columbia but poaching continues to be an issue since this species has a high commercial value around the world.
The Northern Abalone is a marine snail with a flat, oval-shaped shell, mottled reddish or greenish, with areas of white or blue. It is often camouflaged by algae that grows on its shell. It is the smallest abalone on the Pacific coast, measuring no longer than 16.5 cm.
The Northern Abalone is found further north than any other abalone - living throughout the north-eastern Pacific Ocean, from California all the way up to Alaska. It is the only abalone commonly found in British Columbia, including the water of the proposed national marine conservation area adjacent to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. Adult abalone are typically found within 10 meters of the water surface. This is where they feed on algae, including kelp, their favourite food.
The Northern Abalone was the first marine invertebrate to be designated at risk by COSEWIC. It was declared threatened in April 1999.
For thousands of years, Northern Abalone populations lived in ecological balance with their natural predators and with other herbivores. First Nations people, like the Haida, hand picked or speared the abalone for food, ceremonial uses, and trade purposes.
But in the 1960s, harvesters began to use scuba diving equipment to commercially harvest abalone, as it is considered a gourmet delicacy. This meant abalones could be collected in great numbers, and from considerable depths, throughout the full range of their habitat.
Adult abalones, which group together to spawn, are easy targets. The numbers of breeding abalones declined considerably as a result and not as many offspring were produced. Overall populations began to plunge.
Northern Abalones are slow to grow and reproduce. In fact, less than one percent of abalone offspring survive the many perils they face as they grow into breeding adults. This makes the abalone particularly vulnerable to over-harvesting.
Despite a total harvesting ban in 1990, Northern Abalone populations are still not recovering. One of the reasons behind this lack of success is poaching, motivated by high demand and elevated prices owing to abalone scarcity, as well as the difficulty of patrolling a vast coastline.
Other factors contributing to the Northern Abalone’s inability to recover may include pollution, predation, environmental changes, and their slow pace of reproduction.
We have much to learn about the marine environment, the relationships between the creatures that live there, and the roles that humans play in that environment. What we do know is that a healthy marine ecosystem has all of its parts-the northern abalone is one of those parts.
Community participation is essential to successfully rebuilding Northern Abalone populations around Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte archipelago).
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site is participating in the Haida Gwaii Abalone Stewardship Program. This unique community-oriented partnership was initiated by the Haida Fisheries Program of the Council of the Haida Nation and currently brings together the following concerned partners:
- Laskeek Bay Conservation Society
- Haida Gwaii Marine Resources Group Association
- Skidegate Band Council
- World Wildlife Fund Canada
- Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO)
- Environment Canada
- Centre for Wildlife Ecology at Simon Fraser University
- Parks Canada
The objectives of the partnership include increasing awareness, promoting stewardship through education and information, implementing and monitoring recovery programs, and providing feedback to the community in Haida Gwaii. The goal is to restore abalone populations to self-sustaining levels that could support local harvest for food.
Since 2000, this dynamic partnership has accomplished a wide variety of work, including:
- the creation of a collaborative Community Action Plan that outlines strategies for rebuilding the abalone populations;
- the development and implementation of an abalone conservation curriculum for local schools;
- the installation of over 50 artificial abalone habitats for monitoring purposes;
- the establishment of 20 long-term monitoring sites where over 3000 abalones have been tagged to determine their growth and natural survival rates; and
- the formation of a local monitoring and enforcement network called “Coastwatch/Abalone Watch,” which brings together Parks Canada wardens, Haida Fisheries Guardians, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, DFO Fishery Officers, community members, tourism operators, and fishers.
Time and continued population monitoring will reveal the success of this unique community-oriented partnership. Since so little is known about the Northern Abalone, any information we gain about their natural history will improve our understanding of the species and, hopefully, our recovery efforts.
- If you hear anything about abalone poaching or see suspicious activities, record your observations and report any information to Abalone Watch 1-800-465-4336. Remember, every tip counts.
- Support abalone education, research and rebuilding efforts.
- If abalone appears on a restaurant menu, ask where it’s from. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all have commercial abalone fisheries.
- Become an informed consumer and only support sustainable fisheries when you shop or order in a restaurant.