Mike Couffer’s body floats with the motion of the ocean, his eyes peering through his face mask at the rocky tide pools beneath the chilly water’s surface.
He uses a flashlight to illuminate the rocks as he searches for something specific: abalone no bigger than a child’s palm.
“The question is not whether there are abalone, but if there’s baby abalone,” said the Corona del Mar wildlife biologist on a recent day in south Laguna Beach. “There’s big abalone up and down the coast, but are they breeding? And if they’re breeding, are we actually getting little baby abalone?”
Couffer’s investigation is part of a three-year tide pool survey, part of the Green Abalone Restoration Project by non-profit Get Inspired, aimed at finding out if the once-prolific shellfish is repopulating along the Orange County coastline. It’s an effort that requires searching below the saltwater surface of every tide pool from Corona del Mar to San Clemente.
“We are looking for baby abalone to provide evidence of successful reproduction in the wild population,” said the project’s organizer, Nancy Caruso.
The hunt for abalone
Abalone was once so plentiful, jumping on a surfboard and plucking a bag full off of rocks for dinner was a common pastime for ocean users who would hold feasts right on the sand.
But those days are long gone, after over-fishing and other environmental factors nearly wiped them out along the Orange County coast.
Seven different species once thrived in the waters off the state’s beaches. Shells dating back thousands of years were found at early Native American sites, used in trade for other goods.
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