White abalone once numbered in the millions, from Point Conception, near Santa Barbara, California to Punta Abreojos, Mexico, more than 1,200 kilometers (800 miles) to the south.
Today, only about 2,000 isolated survivors remain along California’s coast, where the species is considered to be functionally extinct. No two individuals live near enough for their sperm and eggs to meet when released into the water. As white abalone numbers have fallen, other creatures have proliferated in their wake. Urchins now overgraze the fragile kelp forests that protect coastlines from eroding into the sea.
Despite conservation efforts, abalone numbers have continued to drop in recent decades. Researchers have been left with no choice but to try to breed the animals in captivity and release them into the wilds of the California Coast in a last-ditch effort to save the species.