Northern abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana) action plan: chapter 1

1. Synopsis of the 2007 recovery strategy and update

The 2007 Recovery Strategy for Northern Abalone identified key threats contributing to the decline of abalone in Canada. Illegal harvest remains the most significant threat. Low recruitment in an area over a protracted period of several years further threatens the population by not replenishing the reproductive adults that have died from natural causes or illegal harvest. Future threats may include habitat loss in localized areas due to works or developments on, in, and under the water in the event they are unregulated, and predation by Sea Otters in areas where Northern Abalone are already severely depleted.

The goal of the recovery strategy is to achieve self-sustainable densities of abalone within five biogeographic zonesFootnote 6; Haida Gwaii, Queen Charlotte and Johnstone Straits, North and Central Coast, Georgia Basin, and West Coast of Vancouver Island, in order to remove Northern Abalone from endangered status. Increasing Northern Abalone to sustainable levels can be expected to take several decades.

Critical habitat for Northern Abalone was not identified in the recovery strategy. Identification of key habitats was flagged as an important component to abalone research and rebuilding plans. 

Based on the 2002 Recovery Strategy adopted under the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk, a draft ‘National Recovery Action Plan for Northern Abalone’ was developed in 2004. Both documents relied heavily on a rebuilding strategy initiated in 1999 and provided guidance and direction for recovery activities for Northern Abalone in B.C. The 2004 draft National Recovery Action Plan for Northern Abalone and draft recovery strategy were posted on the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Abalone Homepage (Abalone: Here and Now – Pacific Region), and have been used by members of the Abalone Recovery Implementation Group (Ab RIG) for the purposes of guiding abalone recovery activities. The action plan was updated in 2010 from the earlier draft to reflect knowledge gained and the requirements of the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Appendix 2 provides an evaluation of the action-based performance measures listed in the 2007 recovery strategy and 2004 draft National Recovery Action Plan for Northern Abalone.

1.1 Associated documents

This action plan implements the Recovery Strategy for Northern Abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana) in Canada, September 2007. The strategy is available at the Species at Risk Public Registry. For more details on description of the species, population and distribution, and threats, please refer to the 2007 Recovery Strategy for Northern Abalone in Canada.

1.2 Species assessment information from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC)

Date of Assessment: April 2009

Common Name (population): Northern Abalone

Scientific name: Haliotis kamtschatkana

COSEWIC Status: Endangered

Reason for Designation: Highly valued for its meat, this marine mollusc is patchily distributed along the west coast of Canada. Despite a total moratorium on harvest in 1990, the species was designated as Threatened in 2000. Poaching is the most serious threat and continues to reduce population abundance, particularly the larger, more fecund component; however, all size classes have declined significantly over the past three generations (i.e. since 1978) with mature individuals declining an estimated 88-89%. Low densities may further exacerbate the problem by reducing fertilization success in this broadcast spawner (the Allee effect). Although predators such as the recovering Sea Otter population are not responsible for recently observed declines, they may ultimately influence future abundance of abalone populations.

Canadian Occurrence: Pacific Ocean

COSEWIC Status History: Designated Threatened in April 1999. Status re-examined and confirmed in May 2000. Status re-examined and designated Endangered in April 2009.

1.3 Description of the species

Abalone are marine molluscs related to snails and whelks. The Northern Abalone, Haliotis kamtschatkana (Jonas 1845), is one of approximately 56 species of abalone (Haliotis spp.) found world-wide (Geiger 1999). H. kamtschatkana is called ‘pinto’ abalone in the United States, in keeping with the tradition of naming abalone according to their colour. In B.C., the term ‘northern’ is used as the species is the world’s northernmost abalone (Sloan and Breen 1988).

Northern Abalone have a mottled red to green, lumpy, and ear-shaped shell. The shell has between 3 and 6 holes for respiration, and exterior shell colour can include areas of white and blue. A groove runs parallel to the line of holes. The interior of the shell is faintly iridescent and pearly white. The large foot of the abalone is usually light tan coloured surrounded by tentacle-like structures called epipodium.

Given its widespread range, most coastal First Nations languages have a name for abalone (examples in Table 1). In some cases, such as Haida Gwaii, there are several names for abalone in different Haida dialects, two of which are in Table 1. First Nations also have specific words for abalone shell and for shells of different abalone species.


Table 1. Some First Nations and French names for Northern Abalone in British Columbia.
First Nation Name for abalone Reference for names
Haida (Massett) Gahlyaan Rhonda Bell
Haida (Skidegate) GalGahlyan Skidegate Haida Immersion Program 2007
Huu-ay-aht ؟apsy’in Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre 2007 cited in COSEWIC 2009
Heiltsuk Ğatğ’ni’q J. Carpenter pers. comm. 2007 cited in COSEWIC 2009
Manhousat 7apts7in Ellis and Swan 1981 cited in COSEWIC 2009
Nisga’a Bilaa Stewart pers. comm. 2007 cited in COSEWIC 2009
TsimshianFootnote a Bilhaa Sm’algyax Language Committee 2005 cited in COSEWIC 2009
French Haliotide pie SARA Public Registry
French ormeau nordique Clavier and Richard 1986; Foucher and Cochard 2005

1.4 Role of First Nations traditional knowledge in SARA recovery plans

The traditional knowledge (TK) of First Nations can provide many insights useful to management and planning initiatives. Typically, oral histories carry knowledge, experience and observations throughout multiple generations, helping to compose time series and trend information that often pre-date scientific research. Many traditional knowledge holders have remarkably detailed ecological observations from lifetimes spent on the land and on the water. Not only can TK often build on, and complement, science in its findings, its respectful inclusion and the meaningful participation of First Nations can bring forth novel ideas and information that greatly enhance cooperative recovery planning and stewardship efforts.

The Haida Marine Traditional Knowledge Study (HMTK) is one example of efforts to document TK to inform integrated management on the B.C. coast (HMTK Study Participants et al. 2008)Footnote 7. As part of the project, over 50 Haidas were consulted regarding their knowledge of the marine environment. During the two-year research phase participants discussed approximately 200 marine and maritime species in interviews that totaled 120 hours of audio recordingsFootnote 8. Some of the ecological information documented about abalone includes: species distribution and historic fishing areas; population abundance and trends; species associations; spawning observations; and habitat descriptions.

The potential benefits of including this type of information in recovery and action planning are many. The challenges lie in finding a manner of inclusion that is responsive to First Nations cultures and experiences, while also ensuring measures of validity and reliability. In the case of abalone, there is additional sensitivity due to its current COSEWIC status. In some First Nations communities, discussions on abalone are extremely sensitive, with a particular reluctance to share abalone distribution information. Continuing work to bring more comprehensive abalone TK into recovery documents needs to be considerate and respectful of each First Nations’ protocols for documenting and sharing TK. Therefore, incorporating localized abalone TK may be more appropriate than trying to generalize for the whole coast of B.C. Efforts to respectfully and effectively incorporate TK in Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s species at-risk recovery planning have been initiated, and will assist in informing future planning and recovery activities.

1.5 Cultural significance

Northern Abalone is a traditional food for many First Nations on the Pacific coast that is not available now due to the coast-wide fisheries closures implemented as a result of significant conservation concerns for the species, i.e., extremely low abundance and unsustainable decline. Abalone were harvested year-round and the meat enjoyed fresh (raw), dried, smoked and/or canned (Haida Marine Traditional Knowledge (HMTK) Study Participants et al. 2008). Abalone (Haliotis spp.) shells in coastal middens provide evidence of the pre-historic dietary and cultural importance of abalone (Sloan 2006). Shells from california abalone are also used as decoration on ceremonial dress and artwork in many regions of B.C. (Sloan 2003). Like many other species, abalone have been relied upon and taken care of by First Nations, such as the Haida, through a relationship evolving and continuing over countless generations (HMTK Study Participants et al. 2008). For thousands of years, Northern Abalone were harvested for food along rocky intertidal shores all around Haida Gwaii (Ellis and Wilson 1981).

In Haida legend, it is said that the Northern Abalone descended from the northwestern toad during k'áy gang, the "Time of the Raven.” Stories from long ago not only communicate a timeless reciprocal relationship between human and non-human animals, but also portray an understanding of the natural order of the world and teach appropriate actions for maintaining balance in the world (HMTK Study Participants et al. 2008; Kii7iljuus (Wilson) and Harris 2005). For example, Haida creation stories tell that Haidas came from the sea: their history and experiences are therefore intimately entwined with all sea creatures, and as a result, the harvest of seafoods is underlain with a deep respect. Waste is seen not only as disrespectful but also short-sighted:

… a lot of times we only took half a sack and…kept that for while we were moving back and forth, doing our gathering, food-gathering there… grandmother used to say, ‘Only take enough for what you need. You don’t need to take any more than that.’ Hence, they were very concerned about preserving things like that, making sure that we had enough. I know grandmother … always told us, ‘Never get too greedy about that. If you look after it, it will always be there.’ (HMTK Study participant, Mar. 2007).

For abalone, this conservation principle is reinforced by traditional harvesting methods. According to Ellis and Wilson (1981), Haidas traditionally harvested abalone by hand-picking, and by using a two-pronged seafood spear, kíit'úu, made by lashing (using spruce root twine) two sharpened pieces of huckleberry stem to each side of a long pole made of spruce or red cedar. Collection of abalone using this spear required practice and skill. If the animal was speared and not twisted off the rock in the same motion it might adhere to the rock with its strong foot and be hard to retrieve, if the animal was speared too lightly, it might be knocked off the rock and fall away to depths beyond reach. 

Traditionally, abalone were harvested at extreme low tides, “That was the only time we went to get it was when the tide was down low enough…like a 24-foot high to a zero” (HMTK Study participant, Dec. 2008). “We used to just go pick what was above… the water line, because they’d be crawling around in the kelp. And we wouldn’t touch anything else that’s in the water… we didn’t dive for them” (HMTK Study participant, Feb. 2009). These intertidal harvest methods may have provided a harvest refugia for abalone, as the subtidal portion of the population (>2m depth) was not accessible (Jones et al. 2004). As a result, a portion of the population may have been left to regenerate (Ibid).

At one time, historic abalone populations were plentiful enough and of such widespread distribution that they were relied upon both as a source of fresh food and also preserved for storage and for trade (HMTK Study Participants et al. 2008; Jones et al. 2004). For Haidas, trade with other mainland First Nations brought soapberries, eulachons and eulachon grease in return for the abalone (HMTK Study Participants et al. 2008). In the more recent past, people most often spoke about getting just enough abalone for a meal; this may partially be a function of the steady decline of abalone; “To ourselves it was sort of like a treat, and we took care of it. But then they all got wiped out,” (HMTK Study participant, Oct. 2008). Many expressed that the widespread decline of abalone is felt as a profound loss:

Already we can’t harvest abalone. And some people could probably say, ‘So you’ve got a lot of other things to harvest.’ But I can stand before you and say that in twenty-eight years of working in the health field, I had the honour of being with several elders as they passed on to the next life. Many, many of them, including my late father, one of the last things they asked for or were wishing for was abalone. My birth mother who wasn’t even that fond of it before, one of her last requests was to have some abalone. And our favourite way of eating it is right out of the water, raw, sliced thinly. [A Haida elder], her last request for traditional food was abalone. And it hurt very much that we couldn’t give it to them, I must say. Because we like to fulfill their last wishes, but we could not fill that one, because the [abalone] was overharvested, severely (Haida Elder speaking at Gaaysiigang – An Ocean Forum for Haida Gwaii, January 2009).

The loss of abalone as a part of the traditional diet is both nutritional and socio-cultural (HMTK Study Participants et al. 2008). No socio-economic assessment of the loss of abalone as a resource to First Nations has been conducted. The long history of First Nation use and stewardship of abalone, and the socio-cultural and economic costs associated with its decline, should be considered in futureFootnote 9. In many First Nations communities, traditional knowledge is passed on to the younger generations through shared experience; opportunities to teach youth traditional methods of finding, harvesting and preparing abalone do not currently exist. Abalone is a traditional food that some of the younger generations have not had an opportunity to experience and enjoy (HMTK Study Participants et al. 2008).

1.6 Populations and distribution

1.6.1 Population

Withler et al. (2001) provides the only estimate of Northern Abalone effective population size in B.C.; historically 420 000 individuals. Surveys at index sites in southeast Haida Gwaii and the Central Coast of B.C. have provided general time-series trends. Both Atkins et al. (2004) and Lessard et al. (2007) noted that densities of mature and large (≥100mm shell length) abalone have declined at a greater rate than for small abalone.

The recent COSEWIC assessment (2009) shows that mean total abalone density, at index sites declined from 2.40 to 0.40 abalone/m2 for the Central Coast, between 1978 and 2006 and from 2.22 to 0.43 abalone/m2 for Haida Gwaii between 1978 and 2007. During the same period, the mean mature (≥70 mm SL) density decreased from 2.13 to 0.23 abalone/m2 and from 1.28 to 0.15 for the Central Coast and Haida Gwaii, respectively (COSEWIC 2009). Immature densities declined from 0.27 to 0.18 abalone/m2 and from 1.39 to 0.27 abalone/m2 for the Central Coast and Haida Gwaii, respectively. Proportionally, the densities of mature and large abalone decreased more rapidly than that for small individuals (Atkins et al. 2004; Lessard et al. 2007). The declines in density estimates for all size categories were statistically significant between the latest surveys and those completed in 1978; about three generations (COSEWIC 2009). Only the mature and large abalone density estimates from the 2006 and 2007 surveys were significantly lower when compared to the 1989 or 1990 surveys, just before the fisheries closed. The large decrease in mature abalone densities combined with the decline in mean shell length since the fisheries closure suggest size-selective fishing (poaching) mortality (COSEWIC 2009).

First Nations have also witnessed the dramatic decline in abalone abundance. Even formerly very productive and remote areas have been affected. Additional TK research related to abalone population and distribution could complement existing field survey work and inform future surveys.

1.6.2 Distribution

Northern Abalone can be found off the west coast of North America in shallow subtidal waters along exposed and semi-exposed rocky coastlines from Sitka Sound to Turtle Bay, Baja California (McLean 1966; Geiger 1999). In Canada, Northern Abalone occur only on the Pacific coast in patchy distribution on hard substrate in intertidal and shallow subtidal coastal waters.

In the HMTK study, abalone presence was documented throughout many areas of Haida Gwaii: most participants could remember a time when abalone were widespread, “…wherever there’s a reef there used to be lots of abalone… pretty hard to find anything nowadays,” (HMTK Study participant, Mar. 2007). Harvesting however tended to target areas that were especially productive or convenient; sheltered sites near villages or locations along travel routes were areas most often visited (HMTK Study Participants et al. 2008). These sites are known more intimately, and it may be possible to document observations about abalone patch size, density, species associations and habitat descriptions for specific sites.

Figure 1. Global distribution of Northern Abalone

Map of the Pacific North American coastline (see long description below).

Map courtesy of COSEWIC 2009. Bolded areas relate to possible distribution.

Description of Figure 1

Map of the Pacific North American coastline from Alaska to Mexico, indicating that the global distribution of Northern Abalone extends along the coast from ~60°N in Alaska down to ~27°N in Baja California.


Figure 2. Range of Northern Abalone in Canada

Map showing range of Northern Abalone in Canada (see long description below).

Map courtesy of COSEWIC 2009. Bolded areas indicate possible distribution.

Description of Figure 2

Detailed image of the range of Northern Abalone in Canada. The map depicts possible distribution of Northern Abalone and covers almost the entire shoreline of coastal British Columbia.

1.7 Threats

Continued illegal harvest and low recruitment levels have had predominant and widespread impacts and are the most significant threats to Northern Abalone recovery (Fisheries and Oceans Canada [DFO] 2007, Lessard et al 2007, COSEWIC 2009). Preliminary results from joint research by Parks Canada Agency and Fisheries and Oceans Canada indicate that significant mortality events may occur upon settling of larvae, which also contributes to overall low recruitment (Parks Canada Agency and DFOunpublished).

Other threats to Northern Abalone include predation by Sea Otters where the two species co-exist, and habitat loss and degradation resulting from underwater works and development, in the event they are unregulated, as well as laundering of wild Northern Abalone in the marketplace. Direct effects from climate change are not expected to occur for several years as BC is well within the global distribution of the species (COSEWIC 2009).

For more detailed description of threats to Northern Abalone, please refer to the Recovery Strategy for Northern Abalone in Canada (2007) and the 2009 COSEWIC status report.

1.8 Goals and population and distribution objectives for the recovery of Northern Abalone

The goals and objectives outlined in the following subsections are those adopted in the Recovery Strategy for Northern Abalone in Canada (2007).

1.8.1 Goals

From the recovery strategy, the immediate goal is to:

halt the decline of the existing wild Northern Abalone population in B.C. in order to reduce the risk of this species becoming endangered;

and the long-term goal (over the next 30 years) is to:

increase number and densities of wild Northern Abalone to self-sustainable levels in each bio-geographic zone of B.C. (Haida Gwaii, Queen Charlotte and Johnstone Strait, North and Central Coast, Georgia Basin, West Coast of Vancouver Island), in order to remove Northern Abalone from threatened (SARA) status.

In 2009, COSEWIC reassessed Northern Abalone as endangered, and the species is now legally listed as endangered under SARA. The goal of increasing Northern Abalone to self-sustainable levels can be expected to take several decades. Efforts to achieve both the short-term and long-term goals are ongoing and are supported through measures outlined in this action plan (Table 4).

In addition to the recovery goals, some First Nations and community stewardship groups have community-specific goals that support the recovery goals but project further towards sustainable use. The long-term goal in the Nisga’a Community Action Plan (2007) and Haida Gwaii Northern Abalone Community Action Plan (2008) is to restore local abalone populations to self-sustaining levels that can support First Nations’ fishing for food (see Section 5 ‘Associated Plans’ for other recovery plans relevant to the Northern Abalone in Canada).

1.8.2 Population and distribution objectives

The population and distribution objectives for the recovery of Northern Abalone as adopted in the recovery strategy are:

  1. To observe that mean densities of large adult (≥ 100 mm SL) Northern Abalone do not decline below 0.1 per m2 at surveyed index sites in Haida Gwaii and North and Central Coast, and that the percentage of surveyed index sites with large adult (≥ 100 mm SL) Northern Abalone does not decrease below 40%.
  2. To observe that the mean total density estimates at newly established index sites in the Queen Charlotte and Johnstone Straits do not decline below the level observed in 2004 (0.06 Northern Abalone per m2 and 0.02 Northern Abalone per m2, respectively), and the mean total density estimates for the West Coast of Vancouver Island do not decline below the level observed in 2003 (0.09 Northern Abalone per m2).
  3. To observe at the index sites (in areas without Sea Otters) that the annual estimated mortality rate for mature (≥ 70 mm SL) Northern Abalone is reduced to <0.20 and the mean densities of mature (≥ 70 mm SL) Northern Abalone are increased to ≥0.32 per m2.
  4. To observe at the index sites (in areas without Sea Otters) that the proportion of quadrats (m2) with Northern Abalone is increased to > 40%.

Objectives #1 and #2 are measures to monitor and halt the decline of the Northern Abalone population. Objective #1 is based on population levels in 1990, when all fisheries were closed. Objective #2 is based on the most recent population surveys (at the time the recovery strategy was developed), as a longer time series was not yet available. Objectives #3 and #4 are recovery targets (i.e., self-sustaining population) based on the Northern Abalone population model (in Lessard et al 2007).

Observing an increase (>40%) in the proportion of quadrats with a single Northern Abalone (Objective #4) is not likely to be attainable within the time frame of this action plan, as it requires current abalone occurrence to double. However, this objective provides the only measure currently available to assess changes in the patchy distribution of Northern Abalone on a fine scale. 

The population and distribution objectives may be refined with improved knowledge, particularly the Northern Abalone patch size required for recruitment, and improved knowledge of the effects of Sea Otters. Currently, there is insufficient information to set population and distribution objectives for abalone in areas with Sea Otters. Once additional information is available, population and distribution objectives and recovery targets can be re-assessed and revised.

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