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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Fire, rain and abalone

More than a year after returning black abalone to the wild, Wendy Bragg and her team try to locate the marine snails and assess how they're adjusting.
Anne Marshall-Chalmers
More than a year after returning black abalone to the wild, Wendy Bragg and her team try to locate the marine snails and assess how they're adjusting.

This story aired in the April 4, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

Click the play button above to listen to this story.

About two years ago, a landslide on the Big Sur coast ended up covering an endangered abalone species' habitat. When scientists discovered the damage, they were shocked and launched a rescue effort to get the marine snails into safer habitats.

Severe wildfires followed by heavy winter rains — like the storms we’ve had this winter — are a recipe for landslides here in California. That can put lives in danger, even the lives of marine snails. Two years ago, a massive debris flow along the Big Sur coast ended up smothering the habitat of the endangered black abalone.

Scientists, including Wendy Bragg, a marine ecologist and doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, were shocked when they surveyed the damage. She, along with scientists from the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network or MARINe, were able to save 200 endangered black abalone from impacted areas along the coast. The animals spent a few months in tanks, and in the summer of 2021 Bragg and her team set out to return the abalone or “abs” back into the wild.

It’s four in the morning and pitch black. A mist hangs along the Big Sur coast as five scientists dressed in waders and boots carefully hike toward a slick boulder field, headlamps and flashlights bobbing around in the dark. They’re looking for prime abalone real estate — deep cracks and crevices. It’s work that requires a very low tide, and on this day the tide was just right a few hours before sunrise. Bragg and her team shine light under and between rocks.

“We’re looking at the habitat, whether there are residents abs there,” she says. “Because even though we think something looks good, sometimes (abalone) will reject a site. So we want to make sure that other abs have pre-approved it, basically.”

Black abalone are the one of the only abalone species that live in the intertidal zone — where land crumbles into the sea — and in August of 2020, the mountains above black abalone habitat were burning amidst California’s worst fire season on record.

The Dolan Fire wound up scorching nearly 200 square miles of brush and grass along Big Sur’s majestic, steep cliffs. The following winter, the burn scar was hit with about 16 inches of rain, causing a debris flow of mud, rock, even a chunk of Highway One, to slam into intertidal areas full of black abalone. When Bragg heard about the debris flow, she envisioned flowing sediment. “You don’t think of it as like exploding out of the mouth of a river, but it really did explode. We found evidence of that,” she says, adding that when they went to survey the damage they found “minivan sized boulders had moved. Pieces of cliff were sheared off of bedrock.”

They found abalone with broken shells and torn tissue. Some marine snails, which are usually found in hidden, damp crevices, were crawling across the sand. When Bragg returned to impacted sites after water had washed away some sediment? “We found over 200 empty shells,” she says.

It’s still not determined exactly how many black abalone died in the debris flow that occurred in the winter of 2021, but Bragg estimates it’s in the tens of thousands. Not great news for an endangered species. Bu the majority of the 200 that were rescued survived their months in captivity.

On that early summer morning, Bragg and her team identify several areas to place the abalone. One person lifts each creature out of Trader Joe’s tote bags where it’s been waiting in cold, wet towels. Another person stands with a clipboard and records where each is placed. “When you actually get to put them in place, then they attach and they just it's really it's a wonderful feeling because we've rescued these from someplace where they were, you know, basically the Walking Dead,” says Bragg.

Most emerge from the bags with antennas popped out. Their fleshy, muscular foot that they use to attach to rocks is swiveling clockwise and counterclockwise. One comes out especially eager and crawls up Bragg’s fingers. “He’s just really excited to be out and finding someplace new,” Bragg says with a laugh. She turns to a student who’s been helping her with data collection and encourages her to try and get one of the “transplants” to attach.

Bragg guides the student’s hand under a rock. They hope the creature will latch on immediately and not resist their new habitat.

“Just hold him. Give him a second,” Bragg says.

“He’s latching!” the student exclaims. “That’s awesome.”

They both smile like proud parents. All the marine snails grip quickly to rocks that scientists have selected. It’s a successful morning. Still, Bragg knows this doesn’t guarantee their long-term well being.

Black abalone used to cover much of the coast of California. But in the mid-1980s, a disease called withering syndrome hit hard. Caused by a bacteria that infects tissues, abalone become weak and die. Populations declined by more than 90 percent and in 2009, black abalone were listed as endangered. Big Sur, however, remained an abalone stronghold, with 70 percent of the healthy population living and reproducing here.

Even without fires, the Big Sur coast is known to have unstable soils and frequent landslides, but as California experiences more severe and longer fire seasons, that will only heighten the risk of debris and mud crashing into the coast.

“All that sediment is going to go someplace, and in Big Sur there's a lot of this really good black abalone habitat, this rocky intertidal and as that sediment hits the coast, it’s burying abalone,” says Bragg.

The National Marine Fisheries Service believes healthy black abalone populations, like what’s in Big Sur, will have to stay abundant and reproducing for the species to rebound. This is where Bragg’s relocation efforts could really pay off. In the aftermath of another debris flow or oil spill, Bragg’s work could offer a template for how to rescue endangered snails, and move them into a new home.

But first, she has to make sure all those transplanted snails are doing okay.

A year and a half after returning rescued abalone into the wild, Bragg and her team are back. It’s a few days before Thanksgiving 2022 and the afternoon sun shines. But even in broad daylight, finding the creatures is an hours-long game of hide and seek. Bragg and her team look like crabs crawling over, under and around rocks. At one point, Bragg lies on her stomach and drapes herself over a rock to look underneath into a dark opening. “We call it intertidal yoga,” she says, laughing.

Over several hours, the scientists manage to locate dozens of abalone — both residents and transplants. The total count is similar to the total from the summer of 2021. No major losses. “We had a really good day,” says Bragg. “We were able to survey all of our sites thoroughly which was nice.”

Bragg knows rescuing abalone takes a lot of work, and she does wonder whether grant funding that paid for this rescue project might be better spent researching how to breed black abalone in captivity. Eventually, though, any abalone bred in a lab would need to relocate to the wild. And that’s where Bragg is ready to step in.

In fact, she’s put together abalone “rescue kits” in case of another emergency. The kits include everything from permits to tools required to safely lift abalone from rocks. “So we'll be keeping those in various places along the state so that if there is an oil spill or a debris flow or something, teams can be called out and everything is in place,” she says. “All the protocols are there, all the materials are ready for them.”

As her team finishes up on that November day, a sunset explodes over the Pacific in fiery orange. Bragg holds a few empty abalone shells in her hand and takes it in. In a few days, she will be back out, doing her intertidal yoga and checking in on dozens of endangered black abalone that nearly didn’t make it.

“As a biologist and somebody who just loves nature, I think every species is worth saving. You know that there are more and more challenges to species these days because of changes that are going on in the world around us,” says Bragg. “A lot of those are due to actions by humans. And so I guess I feel like we have the responsibility to do as much as we can.”

Climate Crosscurrents