Wildlife & Biodiversity

COP15 Montreal: Abalone, dugong, pillar coral threatened with extinction

As many as 44 per cent of all abalone shellfish species threatened with extinction; dugongs and pillar coral added to the IUCN Red List

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Saturday 10 December 2022
Abalone species are among the world’s most expensive seafoods and are considered a culinary delicacy. Photo: iStock

A list of threatened species released at the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Montreal, Canada December 9, 2022, has shown what overconsumption and unsustainable harvesting can do to plants and animals around us. 

As many as 44 per cent of all abalone shellfish species are now threatened with extinction according to the assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Abalone species are among the world’s most expensive seafoods and are considered a culinary delicacy. Abalone is sold live in the shell, frozen, or canned and is revered for its sweet, salty, and buttery taste.

Unfortunately, unsustainable extraction and poaching along with climate change, disease and pollution have put twenty of the world’s 54 abalone species at risk of extinction, according to IUCN. 

Read Loss, decay and bleaching: Why sponges may be the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for impacts of marine heatwaves

“Abalones reflect humanity’s disastrous guardianship of our oceans in microcosm: overfishing, pollution, disease, habitat loss, algal blooms, warming and acidification, to name but a few threats. They really are the canary in the coalmine,” said Howard Peters, member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Mollusc Specialist Group and research associate at the University of York, UK, who led the abalone assessment.

Global figures for the 2022-2 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species:

  • (Total threatened species = 42,108)
  • Extinct = 902
  • Extinct in the Wild = 84
  • Critically Endangered = 9,251
  • Endangered = 16,364
  • Vulnerable = 16,493
  • Near Threatened = 8,816
  • Lower Risk/conservation dependent = 152 (this is an old category that is gradually being phased out of The IUCN Red List)
  • Least Concern = 77,491
  • Data Deficient = 20,835

Over the last few years, there have been instances of marine heatwaves that have resulted in mass mortalities of Roe’s abalones in Western Australia in 2011. As many as 99 per cent were killed.

Marine heatwaves have exacerbated abalone diseases worldwide, affecting the Critically Endangered black abalone in California and Mexico, and the Vulnerable green ormer, ranging from the English Channel to northwest Africa. 

These heatwaves also reduce the population of the algae that abalones depend on for food. Pollution from agricultural and industrial run-off causes harmful algal blooms, which have eliminated the Endangered Omani abalone, a commercial species found in the Arabian Peninsula, across half of its range. Toxins such as antifouling boat-paint further deplete populations.

“The most immediate action people can take is to eat only farmed or sustainably sourced abalones. Enforcing fishery quotas and anti-poaching measures is also critical. However, we need to halt the changes to ocean chemistry and temperature to preserve marine life including abalone species over the long term,” said Peters. 

The latest assessment by IUCN has also added dugongs and pillar coral to the IUCN Red List which now includes 150,388 species, of which 42,108 are threatened with extinction. Over 1,550 of the 17,903 marine animals and plants assessed are at risk of extinction, with climate change impacting at least 41 per cent of threatened marine species.

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Dugong populations in east Africa and New Caledonia have entered the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered and Endangered respectively; the species remains Vulnerable globally.

Their population is a victim to unintentional capture in fishing gear and destruction of their food (sea grass) due to chemical pollution, oil and gas exploration and production, bottom trawling and unauthorised coastal development. 

The pillar coral found throughout the Caribbean from the Yucatan Peninsula and Florida to Trinidad and Tobago, has moved from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Its population shrunk by over 80 per cent across most of its range since 1990. They are affected by the contagious Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease and can affect anywhere between 90 and 100 metres of reef per day.

"With this devastating IUCN Red List update on the status of marine species, it is clear that business as usual is no longer an option,” said Ashleigh McGovern, vice president, Center for Oceans at Conservation International. 

“This update reinforces IUCN’s urgent call for a Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that will be ambitious enough to cease destruction of our life support system and catalyse the necessary action and change to secure life on this planet,” said Jane Smart, director of IUCN’s Science and Data Centre.  

IUCN actively supports the development of an ambitious Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and Red List Index will be used to track progress towards species conservation targets.

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