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Abalone is the common name for a group of large marine snails (gastropod mollusks in the family classification Haliotidae).  Abalone populations worldwide have been in serious decline due to over-harvest and habitat degradation.  Pinto abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana) is an abalone species with a distribution ranging from Baja California, Mexico to Alaska.  It is the only abalone species commonly encountered in Washington State, British Columbia and Alaska and is therefore also referred to as the "Northern" abalone.


Abalone exist in aggregations and are associated with complex rocky reef habitat.  Pinto abalone in Washington State are generally found between water depths of 9 to 60 feet (Sloan and Breen, 1988).  The abalone's specific habitat associations and distribution in relatively shallow water makes them particularly vulnerable to harvest. 

Historic Fishery

A commercial fishery for pinto abalone was never authorized in Washington State.  Historically, intertidal subsistence harvest occurred but the magnitude and extent are not well reported.  Pinto abalone were first classified in Washington as shellfish in 1959 when a daily personal harvest possession limit of 3 was imposed.  In 1980 a 3.5 inch minimum harvest size was implemented.  In the early 1990's fisheries biologists responded to signs of pinto abalone population decline by imposing harvest gear restrictions, reducing the daily possession limit and increasing the minimum harvest size to 4 inches.  Despite these management measures populations continued to decline and in 1994 the fishery was closed and has remained closed ever since.


Abalone are broadcast spawners, meaning that they release sperm and eggs into the water column where fertilization occurs.  Planktonic larvae drift in the water column for a period of 10-14 days (Sloan and Breen, 1988; Pearce et al., 2003) when they go through metamorphosis and settle onto rocky bottoms.  Abalone typically have a small home range and in order for successful fertilization males and females must be in close proximity.  When the density of adult spawners is too low, their ability to fertilize and successfully reproduce is hindered by a relatively short period of gamete (egg and sperm) viability.  Studies have estimated that a minimum density of 0.15 abalone per square meter (0.13 per square yard) is required in order for successful reproduction to occur (Babcock and Keesing, 1999).

Decline of Pinto Abalone

Despite the harvest closure in 1994, Washington State abalone populations continue to decline. Abundance may be too low in Washington State to allow reproductive success.  Ongoing and historical studies in the San Juan Archipelago, a region of historically healthy abalone populations, conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), have shown more than a 92% decline in surveyed abalone population abundance between 1992 and 2013 (Rothaus et al. 2008, WDFW unpublished data).  Average pinto abalone density from the most recent survey was 0.01 abalone per meter squared.  Average densities of pinto abalone have been below the established minimum threshold for successful spawning (0.15 abalone per meter squared) since the initiation of this data series in 1992 (see figure below).

Tagged juvenile Pinto abalone - photo by Josh Bouma
Tagged juvenile Pinto abalone - photo by Josh Bouma

Distribution map of Pinto abalone in Washington State
Distribution of Pinto abalone in Washington State


Chart showing Pinto abalone density rates between 1990 and 2013
Change in mean density of pinto abalone at 10 index sites established in the San Juan Archipelago. 
Points are mean density of abalone m-2 with bars representing the standard error of the mean.

Pinto abalone have been listed as a "Species of Concern" by the Federal National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since 2004.  In Washington State, pinto abalone have been designated as a "Candidate Species" and a "Species of Greatest Conservation Need".  In 2009, pinto abalone (referred to commonly as northern abalone in Canada) were listed as "Endangered" under Canada's Species at Risk Act.  In 2013 NOAA received two petitions to list pinto abalone under the Federal Endangered Species Act.  The petitions were accepted and a review has been initiated with designation determination expected in late 2014.

Recovery Efforts

Adult Pinto abalone - photo by Josh BoumaAdult Pinto abalone - photo by Josh Bouma

Despite the closure of the recreational fishery for pinto abalone in 1994, continued declines in Washington pinto abalone populations prompted the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the University of Washington (UW) to initiate pinto abalone restoration efforts in 2002.  Restoration focused on development of a captive breeding program, refining hatchery propagation techniques and conducting field experiments with juvenile outplanting.  A hatchery breeding program was established at the NOAA Mukilteo research station, utilizing the on-going support of NOAA for both the facility and facility maintenance personnel.  The UW continues to ensure that stringent genetic and disease protocols are maintained.  In 2003, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF) joined the abalone recovery team and has subsequently launched an outreach program and leveraged funds to develop secondary hatchery facilities. The abalone recovery team has subsequently expanded to include a suite of additional private, non-profit, tribal and academic partners including (alphabetically): Baywater, Inc., Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, NOAA, Northwest Straits Commission, Shannon Point Marine Center/ Western Washington University, Suquamish Tribe, and Taylor Shellfish.

The overall goal of the abalone recovery team is to halt the declines of abalone populations in the Pacific Northwest and to return populations to self-sustainable levels.  Such a long term goal requires a suite of interim goals and the development of numerous methodologies.  To date, such interim goals have enabled the abalone recovery team to successfully:

  • Develop hatchery and nursery programs for captive propagation and rearing of abalone.
  • Develop protocols to maintain genetically diverse and disease-free families in restoration hatchery facilities.
  • Conduct experimental outplants of juvenile hatchery reared abalone to assess the efficacy of outplants as a restoration strategy.
  • Aggregate adult abalone in the wild to enhance reproductive potential and to assess this method as a restoration strategy.
  • Outplant abalone post-larvae at experimental locations to assess this method as a restoration strategy.
  • Draft a collaborative  Pinto Abalone Recovery Plan for Washington.
  • Launch a public outreach campaign targeting divers, schools, boaters, fishers and the general public.

This body of work represents nearly a decade of basic and applied science and has laid the foundation for increasing the scale abalone recovery efforts.


Babcock, R. and J. Keesing. 1999. Fertilization biology of the abalone Haliotis laevigata: laboratory and field studies. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 56: 1668-1678.

Pearce, C.M., P. Ågerup, A. Alabi, D. Renfrew, J. Rosser, G. Whyte, and F. Yuan. 2003. Recent progress in hatchery production of pinto abalone, Haliotis kamtschatkana, in British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Technical Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 2482: 29-44.

Rothaus, D., B. Vadopalas, and C. Friedman. 2008. Precipitous declines in pinto abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana kamtschatkana) abundance in the San Juan Archipelago, Washington, USA, despite statewide fishery closure. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 65: 2703-2711.

Sloan, N., and P. Breen. 1988. Northern abalone, Haliotis kamtschatkana, in British Columbia: fisheries and synopsis of life history information. Canadian Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Science 103: 46pp.

Web Links

Puget Sound Restoration Fund – Pinto Abalone Restoration

NOAA Listing Links