Aquatic Species at Risk - Northern Abalone

Species - Details

Northern abalone
Bart DeFreitas

Scientific name:
Haliotis kamtschatkana
SARA Status:
Endangered (2009)
Region: Pacific Ocean

Did You Know?

Beautiful shells
Northern abalone were an important food source for First Nations people such as the Haida, who also valued them for their beautiful iridescent inner shells. Abalone shells have been found at numerous native American inland sites, indicating their value for ceremonial and trade purposes.

At a glance

This marine snail has been prized for many years as a gourmet delicacy. It was harvested in great numbers between 1975 and 1990, causing populations to decline rapidly and significantly.

About the northern abalone

The northern abalone lives along the Pacific coast from Baja, California to Alaska. The abalone’s scientific name—Haliotis—means ‘sea ear’ and refers to its flattened, oval-shaped shell. Its colourful shell inspires its other name, pinto abalone, commonly used in the United States. To breathe, the abalone takes in water through holes on the surface of its shell and filters dissolved oxygen with its gills.

More on Abalone from the Pacific Region :

Here you will find :

  • Abalone video clips
  • ABALONE RECOVERY, an update on the recovery of abalone in British Columbia
  • National Recovery Strategy for the Northern Abalone in British Columbia
  • Draft National Recovery Action Plan for Northern Abalone in British Columbia
  • Meetings, Minutes and Up-coming Events on Abalone
  • Organizations Protecting Abalone
  • Publications and Additional reading on abalone
  • Adobe Acrobat PDF graphic of our National Conservation Poster

How to recognize northern abalone

The shell of the northern abalone is mottled reddish or greenish in colour, with areas of white or blue. Flat and oval-shaped, the shell is often camouflaged by growths of algae. The interior of the shell is pearly white with a faint pink and green sheen.

Northern abalone
Bart DeFreitas

The northern abalone uses its rough, file-like ‘tongue’ to scrape pieces of algae from rock surfaces. Adult abalones will also feed on suspended algae particles and floating kelp fronds from the surrounding water.

Where the northern abalone lives

The northern abalone can be found clinging to rocks along exposed and semi-exposed coasts. Adult abalone prefer good water circulation and are typically found within 10 metres of the surface. Adults may move only a few hundred metres during their lifetimes, which in many cases can be up to 50 years.

Abalone larvae are free-swimming and use tiny hair-like cilia to propel themselves through the water. After a week or ten days of surfing the currents, larvae settle to the bottom, shed their cilia, start to grow a shell, and begin their more sedentary adult lives.

Why it’s at risk

Although female abalone may release millions of eggs at a time, the mortality rate of larvae and young adults is extremely high: fewer than one percent survive the many perils they must face to reach sexual maturity. The northern abalone is also particularly susceptible to over-harvesting because it is slow-growing and long lived, taking many years to reach adulthood.

Despite a total harvesting ban in 1990, northern abalone populations show no signs of recovery. Poaching (motivated by high demand and elevated prices owing to the abalone’s scarcity) continues to be a major problem. The effectiveness of the ban’s enforcement may ultimately determine whether abalone have the opportunity to increase. Other factors contributing to the northern abalone’s inability to recover may include environmental changes.

The sea otter is one of the northern abalone’s major natural predators. Another species at risk, the sea otter was re-introduced to the British Columbia coast from 1979-1972. This is expected to have an effect on the abalone’s recovery. If the otter returns to its entire historical range, it will reside in virtually all of the abalone’s present habitat. Northern abalone can coexist with sea otters, of course, but at relatively low densities, living and hiding in cracks and crevices.

What’s being done

The northern abalone is protected in Canada under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). Fishing of northern abalone in British Columbia is also banned under the Fisheries Act.

A Recovery Strategy for Northern Abalone has been finalized and an action plan is currently being developed.

What can you do?

Northern abalone will get the protection they need only if all Canadians work together to reduce threats. Be aware that harvesting northern abalone is banned in Canada; if you live in areas where abalone populations remain, get involved with the Coast Watch Program. Find out more about northern abalone, take active steps to protect their habitat, and get involved with the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP) or another conservation organization.

Background information provided by Environment Canada in March 2004.