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Scientists, Citizens Collaborate to Investigate Abalone Movements

14 May 2015

US - Two fisheries scientists, including a US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) biologist, have been working with citizen scientists to collect important information on abalone movements to aid population recovery.

The two men, David Witting and Bill Hagey, share a passion for finding the now rare white abalone and understanding the movement and feeding behaviours of all abalone species.

Mr Witting is an NOAA Fisheries biologist and Mr Hagey is a developer of underwater instruments used by marine scientists.

Mr Witting and Mr Hagey began diving together and searching for abalone in San Diego, California's La Jolla and Point Loma areas a few years ago.

Then, within a short time, this venture turned into a volunteer-based Citizen Science Group, made up of mostly scientists who are taking action to contribute new information to our understanding of southern California abalone populations.

While Mr Witting serves as one of the scientific advisers for this Citizen Science Group, Mr Hagey handles all of the dive trip logistics, detailed trip reports, and engineering support.

Last year, Mr Hagey and his colleague Ronan Gray, from Sub Aqua Imaging Systems, Inc. designed a camera system that captured time-lapse images of a wild pinto abalone, which showed an individual abalone that remained within centimetres of the same location feeding on drift kelp during an entire two week period.

Understanding abalone movement is a key element in determining actions to effectively aid in their recovery.

Two individual abalone of opposite sexes need to be in close enough proximity for successful fertilisation. To better understand abalone movements, the scientists are using additional cameras over longer time spans, such as 4-6 weeks.

This time, they are recording the movements of two white abalone that are close to each other and hope to capture images of a spawning event.

To understand longer-term movements, NOAA Fisheries received funding from the U.S. Navy to perform an acoustic tracking study of tagged pinto abalone, which will begin in 2016.

"This citizen science group is collecting data that is helping NOAA Fisheries update the status of depleted abalone populations," stated Mr Witting. "As we get more data we will be able to provide critical information for restoring these populations."

Another key outcome from this group was a contribution to the understanding of pinto abalone populations. Amanda Bird, a member of the Citizen Science Group, is pursuing her Master's degree at California State University.

Ms Bird completed the first comprehensive surveys for pinto abalone in southern California, building on studies conducted by California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Her work contributes to NOAA Fisheries' understanding of pinto abalone populations and was used in the agency's Status Review Report for Pinto Abalone.

NOAA Fisheries made the decision to not list pinto abalone under the Endangered Species Act based on the findings of the status review, which were both released in December 2014.

"Bill and I were just two passionate people who thought we would go out on a few dive trips and find some white abalone," said Mr Witting.

"At the time, we didn't realise this was going to turn into a community effort to learn more about abalone populations in southern California, with over 30 volunteer divers, two boats, and micro-scale maps of all abalone species encountered."

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