By Kat Middleton, Western Region Science and Policy Intern
Northern abalone (AKA "ears of the sea") look like creatures from outer space, with many tentacles poking out beneath flat, colourful, ear-shaped shells. They're actually sea snails, and like land snails, they have two protruding eyes and a strong foot muscle for sticking to rocks and moving along the ocean floor. They're strict vegetarians that chow down on algae and kelp using a saw-toothed tongue called a radula.
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Most of the year, northern abalone hide from hungry sea otters and sea stars between rock crevices along the shallow bottom of British Columbia's kelp forests. Males and females emerge from their solitary hideouts from April through August, pile up on top of one another and reproduce by releasing millions of sperm and eggs into the surrounding water through holes in their shells.
Unfortunately, low populations and patchy distribution make it difficult for northern abalone to find partners. In Canada, they're listed as a threatened species under federal law. Commercial fishing closed in 1990 because of declining stocks. But despite this quarter-century ban, poaching is one of the greatest threats — with so few left, market value and illegal harvesting is soaring. In 2006, more than 10,000 were seized by authorities. Even with high fines, monitoring and enforcement can be difficult and need improvement. Other threats include flourishing sea otters — a major predator — and critical habitat degradation from dredging, log transport and finfish aquaculture.
B.C. First Nations once used the species' beautiful inner shell for ceremonial art pieces and carvings. Abalone are also an important traditional food source but, because of their threatened status, these customs can no longer be practiced.
Despite conservation attempts, B.C.'s northern abalone population is not improving. The government released an action plan in 2012 emphasizing the importance of continuing a fishery closure and improving enforcement against poaching, particularly through public education. Continuing monitoring is also important, as many ecological questions still remain unanswered, such as the impact of re-introduced sea otters.
Outreach programs on poaching, currently run by non-profits and coastal First Nations communities, are critical. You can help! Spread the word and report your sightings of illegal northern abalone harvest to DFO or call 1-800-465-4336.
If you're passionate about the ocean and want to help protect it, join our team of Ocean Keepers.