Inside the effort to save the abalone — a delicious but endangered sea creature Behind a black door and a sign that reads "Authorized Personnel Only" is a project that aims to bring the white abalone back from the brink of extinction.

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Behind this locked door is the white abalone's best chance of avoiding extinction

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For thousands of years, abalone have been highly prized along the California coast. The once-abundant sea snails were collected for their meat and their shells were used as decorations, even currency. Now, wild abalone are struggling, and some are endangered. NPR's Chad Campbell introduces us to a marine biologist trying to save a species.

CHAD CAMPBELL, BYLINE: At the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, we stand outside a locked door. There's a sign that reads, authorized personnel only.

KRISTIN AQUILINO: So you're about to enter a room that has more white abalone than exists in the ocean, which is both terrifying and an incredible opportunity to save them.

CAMPBELL: Kristin Aquilino runs the White Abalone Captive Breeding Program at the lab. The Iowa native admits she didn't know what an abalone was until she arrived here as a grad student, but she learned quickly.

AQUILINO: I basically manage a really specialized fertility clinic, spa and nursery for an endangered sea snail.

CAMPBELL: There are seven species native to the California coast, and, in 2001, white abalone became the first marine invertebrate to be listed federally as endangered. It has the bad luck of being known as the most tender and delicious. And in the 1970s, it was nearly fished to extinction. Today, taking any wild abalone is prohibited in California.

AQUILINO: The first thing we see when we walk in this room are pipes everywhere, bubbling seawater and rows and rows of troughs to hold all of our animals.

CAMPBELL: There are about 20,000 abalone here, but many are difficult to see. In the juvenile culture rack, the smallest hatchlings are tiny - about the size of a vanilla bean speck in your ice cream. In the lab, the animals are grouped by age and size.

AQUILINO: We call this the brood stock conditioning area. It's kind of like the Tinder for white abalone.

CAMPBELL: Aquilino says it takes two to four years in the lab for these marine gastropods to grow from a speck to the inch-long juveniles ready for the ocean. The 10 biggest animals here were captured in the wild. These seniors are a bit larger than a softball, but they can't retire yet. Aquilino says they're some of her most prolific procreators. In the back corner of the lab, she points to Green 312 clinging to the side of her tank.

AQUILINO: There's a special animal in here. She spawned 20 million eggs at one time. And that's our hope, is to get all these animals to spawn that much, regularly.

CAMPBELL: But how exactly do the researchers coax this behavior?

AQUILINO: Spawning white abalone is a really romantic process. We put them all in their own individual buckets. We put a love potion of hydrogen peroxide, play some Barry White, and hopefully they give us whatever gametes they have.

CAMPBELL: You don't really play Barry White, do you?

AQUILINO: We have.


BARRY WHITE: (Singing) Can't get enough of your love, babe.

CAMPBELL: With a little help from Barry, the lab hatches about 30,000 white abalone a year. But Aquilino believes they need to triple that number to be successful.

AQUILINO: And the hope is that, if we can keep putting animals in the same site over and over again, four times a year for five or six years, that we can create those self-sustaining populations.

CAMPBELL: The lab already produces more animals than it can store. Aquilino shares a text she just received - the future of white abalone. It's from a commercial farm that partners with the lab. The message includes pictures of troughs overflowing with her animals, ready to try their luck in the open ocean.

Chad Campbell, NPR News, Bodega Bay, Calif.

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