NOAA Recognizes ‘Hero’ Helping Save White Abalone From Extinction

Spring 2017

NOAA Fisheries recently recognized Dr. Kristin Aquilino of the University of California Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory as the first white abalone recovery “hero” for her success in captive breeding of endangered white abalone.

The Species in the Spotlight Recovery Hero Award recognizes those helping to recover NOAA Fisheries’ "Species in the Spotlight," eight highly endangered species including white abalone.

Dr. Aquilino developed a new broodstock facility and improved aquaculture techniques to improve white abalone captive reproduction efforts. Her redesign of rearing tanks boosted survival of abalone through their first year, which is otherwise fraught with high mortality even under the best conditions. She also has the rare ability to integrate research and conservation efforts into compelling presentations that reach a variety of audiences.

scientist holding baby abalone in hand

NOAA Fisheries recognized Kristin Aquilino's success in captive breeding endangered white abalone with a species recovery "hero" award.

As a result of Dr. Aquilino’s efforts, the number of captive white abalone in California has greatly increased and is now more likely higher than numbers left in the wild. More people also know what a white abalone is, and care about our mission to recover them. A consortium of scientists led by NOAA Fisheries is currently refining techniques for outplanting and hope to begin placing captive-bred white abalone into the ocean to boost wild populations within the next few years.

Two month old white abalone. Photo: Kristin Aquilino

We asked Dr. Aquilino about her background and her role in supporting white abalone recovery:

Q: Congratulations on receiving the NOAA Species in the Spotlight Recovery Hero Award! What was your reaction?

Wow! What an honor! I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of this exceptional team of people working to save white abalone – this team and this work have enriched my life tremendously, both professionally and personally. I feel that this award represents the success of our collaborative efforts as much as anything I have played a role in.

Q: Do you think white abalone can be recovered? How do you see your role?

I absolutely think white abalone can be recovered. One of the great things about restoring this species is that their habitat is relatively intact. If we can make enough white abalone in captivity and figure out the best way to place them back into the wild promptly, this should be a relatively easy species to save.

My role is to use science to figure out the most effective and efficient way to make a whole lot of high-quality baby white abalone as quickly as possible. I essentially run a very specialized fertility clinic for endangered sea snails. To accomplish these goals, a huge amount of collaborative effort is required, and part of my role is to enhance communication and facilitation among partner groups to optimize results.

Q: What has been your greatest accomplishment so far?

Strengthening the collaboration among white abalone partner institutions has been the thing I am most proud of during my time thus far with the recovery program. I think that our concerted effort is the single thing that has most contributed to the increase in captive production over the past five years.

Q: How did you get into the work of saving white abalone from possible extinction?

I grew up in Iowa – not exactly close to the ocean – and I had never even heard of an abalone for the first two decades of my life. However, I have always had a passion for science and the natural world, a strong interest in understanding the role species play in communities and ecosystems, and a love for water. The interdisciplinary quality of my current work coalesces much of my scientific training in ecology, population biology, and endangered species reproduction. Looking back, it’s surprisingly sensible to see how this Midwest kid grew up to direct a breeding program for an iconic marine snail.

Q-What do you like most about your job?

There are so many parts of this work that I love! I love the sense of purpose that comes with restoring an endangered species, advancing knowledge, promoting science and education, and supporting sustainable aquaculture. At the heart of what fuels me is the ability to inspire people to find value in science and in nature. I love helping people realize the importance of science to decision-making that improves our quality of life. I also love inciting wonder and a sense of belonging in nature. As part of this, I actively engage in science communication, and I enjoy sharing my research through social media, video production, science outreach seminar series, and K-12 education. Although this outreach represents a small percentage of my time, I think it has some of the biggest impact of anything I do.

I also genuinely enjoy my colleagues. It is incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by so many amazing scientists, aquarists, aquaculturists, policy makers, and volunteers, all dedicated to making this world a better place.

Q: There are few women in aquaculture. What advice would you share with women who are interested in pursuing this type of career?

Follow the things you love. Challenge yourself – being a little uncomfortable usually means you’re learning something. Most importantly, surround yourself with supportive people!

Q: What is your favorite thing about working with white abalone?

Few things bring me more joy than showing someone an abalone’s beady, black eyes for the first time and hearing an exclamation like, “Oh! It has a face!” The unexpected charisma that these snails harbor is definitely one of their top selling points.

Q: What would your ideal scenario look like for abalone in the future?

Above all, I would be very pleased to see a self-sustaining wild population of white abalone in my lifetime. I wish this for all our U.S. abalone species. My husband grew up sport diving for red abalone on the northern coast of California, and we look forward to taking our young daughter abalone diving with us when she is old enough. Abalone are closely tied to the identity of many of the people living on the U.S. Pacific Coast, and I would love to see this cultural, economic, and ecological resource thrive for future generations.

Beyond that, it would be amazing to see farm-raised white abalone on restaurant menus someday. Many people remember white abalone as the most tender of all U.S. abalone species. It would be wonderful to enjoy these prized animals as a healthy and sustainable food source in parallel to restoring wild populations.