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What a Sea Snail Die-off Means for Californians—and the Climate | National Geographic

August 30, 2019


(slow music) – [Narrator] This is a red abalone. It’s basically the oceans’
version of a garden snail. It lives primarily on large rocks in the lush kelp forests of California. It’s also been a popular delicacy in the state for over a century. While wild red abalone is not available to commercial fishermen, recreational abalone divers
in northern California can snorkel down to the
rocks, pry off a snail, and bring it home for a barbecue. That is until recently. Something is happening to the kelp forests and it’s threatening the
survival of the species and the northern California communities that rely on the red abalone for business. In December of 2018
California Fish and Game decided to close down the recreational abalone fishery until 2021 in hopes that they give
this sea snail population a chance to rebound. – My name is Joe Cresalia. I’ve been diving since 1969, 50 years. The North California coast, it’s just an incredibly beautiful place. The topography, the really high cliffs, the big rocks that stick out of the water, it’s almost prehistoric in that way. You feel like you’ve really
gone off into another world. What we’re catching up
here, the red abalone, there’s a variety of abalone, but the red abalone traditionally is what your grandparents would think of if they were seeing abalone on the coast. For people that think they don’t like fish or people that don’t
think they like shellfish, it’s amazing to see
their eyes just sparkle when they take a bit of it and go, “This is absolutely incredible.” And you know before they took the bite they were almost afraid to take a bite. – [Narrator] In 1916
California established a commercial fishery for wild red abalone. But in 1997 commercial fishery closed due to a dwindling population. 20 years later the
recreational fishery closed when purple sea urchins
ravaged the kelp forests and left the red abalone
dying of starvation. – I appreciate what Fish and Game has done and I think anybody intelligent does and it’s recently closing it down with something I had predicted
by watching the ocean. There’s a couple of places, I’ve literally been diving for 50 years, and there really wasn’t enough kelp. You can see it. You would see the kelp stumps and four or five sea urchins
on it just chomping it. It looked like someone had come in with a chainsaw and just cut it. You’re going down and you’re seeing like a blanket of sea urchins. The kelp was disappearing, the abalone you weren’t seeing as many of ’cause they were off looking for food, and there was an unbalance. I wear a dive watch that gives me my depth and my water temperature and I was noticing the water
temperature getting higher, and I was used to the water being 49, 51, kind of in that range, sometimes it’d be in a little colder, it’d be a little warmer, but I was seeing spikes where the water was 54 or 55 degrees at times. For 40 years I’d seen pretty much the same type of temperate consistently, and to see those types of
variances made me wonder. (waves crashing) The bottom’s changing,
there’s no question about it, and you could see old abalone
shells broken and stuff where abalone have died. So yeah, life’s changed on the bottom. It’s going through a change. (slow music) – My name is Dr. Laura Rogers-Bennet and I am a Senior Environmental Scientist here at the Bodega Marine Laboratory. Abalone are very much an indicator of the health of the kelp forest. They are very sensitive to
any changes in food abundance. They’re not able to
switch over and eat meat, and so when their numbers go down we know there’s something
going wrong in the kep forest. (slow music) – In 2013 we had a sea
star wasting disease that hit our coast really hard and that took out a lot
of predatory sea stars. After that we had the warm blob and the El Nino of 2014 and ’15. – Up in the Gulf of Alaska
there formed a warm water blob and the oceanographers called it a “blob,” and so that warm water sat in a patch and extended all the
way down to our region, and that feature set up and didn’t move, and just stayed there. – [Katie] That took out all of our kelp because the water got too
warm for our kep to survive. – [Narrator] Studies done on the blob showed that while there were a number of natural drivers that formed it, human-generated global
warming likely made it worse. – Shortly after that we had
the purple urchin explosion of around 2015 and ’16. They can mow down forests like lawnmowers, and they multiply very quickly, and they grow very quickly. They grow a lot quicker
than species like abalone, so the abalone can’t really keep up with their eating habits. The purple urchin are taking the kelp before it can even get to a mature age, so they’re eating baby kelps
before they can reproduce, and that’s what’s causing
this huge urchin barren that we’ve been seeing. Usually in a healthy
ecosystem a red abalone would be hidden under a rock. Lately we’ve been seeing
them on top of rocks, and they’re almost half to
three-quarters of their body are perched up, and they’re just waiting for anything to drift by and float into their muscle or their mouth. So, it’s a little bit of an odd sighting. Some divers have a little bit of kelp they keep in their pockets in
case they pass a red abalone and you can put kelp
in front of an abalone and it will lurch up. It’s really wild to watch. It will actually lurch up like a puppy dog that just smelled a treat and it will almost unhinge its whole body just to go grab that piece
of kelp, and it tucks it in, and it kind of like holds it from all of the other urchin
that are usually around it. We collected new numbers as of 2018 and we didn’t see any improvement
in the abalone population. If anything we saw more declines. – So we typically see around
24,000 to 26,000 divers coming to dive, and rock-pick,
and collect abalone, but they’re also coming with a lot of their friends and family. It’s estimated that the
recreational red abalone fishery is worth about $44 million
to the local communities and to the fishermen who are
participating in the fishery. – Silver’s at the Wharf is a full-service seafood and steak restaurant,
and 17 lodging rooms which are used principally by fishermen. My name is Jim Hurst and we
invented Silver’s at the Wharf in Northern Harbor,
Fort Bragg, California. The impact of the abalone closure is somewhere about
$30,000 to $40,000 a month that’s attributed to loss of
food sales and lodging sales. Once you lose that business
you don’t get it back. It’s interesting to compare
what’s going on today to when our mill closed, and when the mill closed
everybody thought, oh my God, we’re gonna die. It’s gonna have a huge impact
and it can’t be replaced. – My name is Chris Brians,
we’re here at Harvest Market, I am a grocery clerk, I have
worked here for 29 years. There is a large amount of people that came to Fort Bragg to go diving. The whole family would come. April first comes and goes now, whereas before you could see the influx of the people that were going diving. – I think seeing and understanding how interconnected everything is, being able to pick your food
out of the ocean like that, you have an appreciation for the effort that goes into it and where it comes from. This isn’t from some
abstract store someplace, this is actually your activities, and you see how it grows,
and there’s a relationship. It should be a relationship
of stewardship. This is a source of food,
and you wanna protect it, and you wanna take care of it so that you can continue to do it. It’s a renewable resource as
long as it’s properly handled. – As the globe warms we’re going to have more marine heatwaves, we’re going to have
longer duration heatwaves, and they’re going to be
broader geographic extent. And so I think this is really giving us an inkling of what is to come. – It’s quite sad that these people that have done this for
generations have to stop. – It’s interesting, recently
I was talking to some people and somebody made the comment, “Yeah, nature’s gonna heal itself, “the question is will man
go along with it or not, “or will he make the environment
so intolerable for itself “that that’ll be it.” I’d like to think mankind will
go on also and be part of it. (waves crashing) (slow music)

17 Comments

  • Reply National Geographic August 26, 2019 at 6:47 pm

    The red abalone is dying off as its food source—the California kelp forests—are decimated. Experts fear the die-off may be a sign of what’s to come. To learn more, you can read on here: https://on.natgeo.com/2ZgHfju

  • Reply ho2cultcha August 28, 2019 at 3:27 pm

    i've been in northern cal for 30+ yrs, and i've never tried an abalone. but my favorite marisco is sea urchin – uni!

  • Reply can tho August 28, 2019 at 7:21 pm

    Eat the sea urchins!! They are really good!!!

  • Reply Simon Grönlund August 28, 2019 at 7:56 pm

    I see 52 NAY-sayers. Please step up and explain your statement. I am sooo curious about your negative vote. What makes you believe human interference with the climate does not has an impact on ocean life???

  • Reply Simon Grönlund August 28, 2019 at 8:07 pm

    Humans have a lot of accountancy to answer for. And politicians are not our best friends, as you probably already know. What you do is what your grand-kids will get. Good luck!!!

  • Reply califisher August 28, 2019 at 8:25 pm

    Wow, we're screwed.

  • Reply Chelsea Covington August 29, 2019 at 3:01 am

    I’m with y’all. Get rid of the sea urchins. That simple

  • Reply Ted Baxter August 29, 2019 at 5:09 am

    Such touching music to push a discredited political agenda.
    I don’t buy it.

  • Reply a a August 29, 2019 at 9:28 am

    I posit that climate change is more so to do about sun activity than human caused. The maunder minimum is a good example. Warming and cooling periods are common in the geologic cycle which for the maunder minimum shows that sun spot activity has a correlation with earth's climate. The change was inevitable I'd say… but we still need to be better with the environment.

  • Reply Kathy Wedzik August 29, 2019 at 9:30 am

    Trigger fish eat sea urchins

  • Reply Julia Wild August 29, 2019 at 4:17 pm

    A sea snail "die off?" What about the human, homeless. "die off" taking place on their very streets? It is said that as California goes, so goes the rest of the country. God forbid! Is THIS the American ideal? Who ARE these people? I' m beginning to suspect that an alien invasion has already taken place on this planet in California. Leave it to them to kill off a species…including himan.

  • Reply Arnel Cabusao August 29, 2019 at 9:34 pm

    Hello people getting this in recommended in 2025!!

  • Reply die-eggo camaney August 29, 2019 at 11:18 pm

    If it's the urchin fault how is this tied to the climate. Looks like a natural spike to me.

  • Reply Zsle Brennan August 30, 2019 at 1:04 am

    Are those sea urchin poisonous? If not, has anyone eaten the roe of the sea urchin? That will keep the numbers of the sea urchin down and leave enough food for the abalone. It's amazing how much kelp and rock they can eat, they can strip a kelp forest within a few days leaving nothing behind. Getting a restaurant that specialises in making roe butter or other dishes with them will help a lot. I hope u fine a solution that can help save ur abalones, good luck

  • Reply Marcelo Serrano August 30, 2019 at 3:38 am

    I would like to try the purple uni … Barney food 🥘

  • Reply isaiah wolftail August 30, 2019 at 3:56 am

    Everything is dying it’s too late

  • Reply isaiah wolftail August 30, 2019 at 4:04 am

    Don’t worry once we’re done with war on ourselves it’ll be war on our environmental problems

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