Black abalones are plant-eating marine snails that inhabit rocky intertidal and subtidal reefs along the California and Baja California coast; their strong, muscular “foot” attaches them to rocks and their oval shells protect them from predators. Abalones are sensitive to environmental stressors and reproduce by releasing eggs and sperm into the water when environmental conditions are right.
Before the time of commercial fisheries, Native people along California’s coast ate abalone for thousands of years. Ironically, once abundant, black abalones are endangered: although black abalone fishing has been illegal since 1993, they are poached for their high-valued meat. Moreover, Southern California’s black abalone populations have significantly declined recently due to a withering syndrome disease.
In collaboration with the National Park Service (Southern California Research Learning Center) and the University of New Hampshire Hubbard Center for Genome Studies, Boz Institute will utilize environmental DNA (eDNA) to detect cryptic wild black abalone populations in previously unsearched areas and across a density gradient of known black abalone populations around the Channel Islands. This is a challenging project because black abalones shed lower amounts of genetic material than other marine organisms and high volumes of water movement likely flush any resident genetic material making it hard to detect the species in a point-based sampling strategy. This project is important because it assesses the distribution and health of endangered black abalone and the local intertidal community. This data will help better understand the current marine biodiversity challenges and the necessity to protect a fragile ecosystem balance of the local marine environment.