Western Washington University Biology graduate student Katie Mills-Orcutt of Culver City, California this summer is the lead researcher working with various restoration groups testing new methods of supplementing wild pinto abalone stocks in the San Juan Islands.
Abalone are considered important ecosystem engineers due to their habits of grazing down select algae and promoting healthy kelp forests. Once abundant throughout their range from Alaska to Point Conception, California, pinto abalone have undergone a precipitous decline particularly in Washington waters within the past 50 years.
Mills-Orcutt got involved with pinto abalone research through her thesis advisor, Deb Donovan, whose lab focuses on invertebrates and science education. Mills-Orcutt is also a SCUBA instructor and was interested in having her master’s research be ocean-centered with a diving emphasis.
“Once Deb told me about her lab’s past work with abalone, and I talked with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife about the current state of the population, I knew it was what I wanted to work on,” Mills-Orcutt said. “They are dwindling so fast in Washington waters, I thought whatever small piece of the puzzle I could contribute to their recovery I would.”
Mills-Orcutt does all the planning and coordination for the research and considers the project her baby, she said.
“I have collaborated with a lot of groups to get funding and assistance, since diving alone is not allowed,” Mills-Orcutt said.
Due to both poaching pressure and significant recreational harvest until 1994 in the Pacific Northwest, populations now fall below densities required for successful reproduction at all sites monitored by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
To combat these declines, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund has tried supplementing wild stocks with outplants — hatchery-reared individuals — in hopes of boosting population densities above the reproduction threshold. Of the outplanting attempts to date within the San Juans, only preliminary studies have included larval abalone. Outplanting of larvae, which only remain in their planktonic stage for 7 to 10 days, would reduce hatchery time dramatically compared to juvenile abalone, which are most commonly used for outplants.
This research aims to test the feasibility of using larvae as an alternative to juveniles, reducing costs, maximizing hatchery output and potentially leading to better survival of outplanted individuals.
Mills-Orcutt’s research is part of a larger collaboration between thePuget Sound Restoration Fund, University of Washington, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to return pinto abalone densities to a level sufficient for population reproduction.
“The goal is for our research sites to have densities greater than one abalone per five square meters, which is the minimum density required for successful egg fertilization. If we can accomplish this at these sites through larval outplanting it could potentially boost the efficiency of hatchery output,” Mills-Orcutt said.
One success this project has already demonstrated is the ability of different organizations with limited resources to work together to accomplish a greater goal, Mills-Orcutt said.
Mills-Orcutt, a first-year graduate student, was assisted in diving activities by Yann Herrera-Fuchs of University of British Columbia, scientific divers from the Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory, WWU’s Shannon Point Marine Center and the Puget Sound Restoration Fund.