Scientists make steps toward restoring sea urchin population

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sea urchins
Sea Urchins (CREDIT: WINK News)

Scientists from the University of Florida have made a large step towards restoring sea urchin populations.

Sea urchins help the reefs, they play a critical role in maintaining the balance between coral and algae.

For thousands of years, long-spined sea urchins helped keep reefs intact.

Josh Patterson is an IFAS associate professor of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences at the University of Florida.

“This particular species is really important for coral reefs throughout the Caribbean and in Florida because it provides a really important function in terms of grazing. So it cleans the substrate of fleshy algae that competes with the corals,” Patterson said.

Without coral, reefs face severe consequences, including a weakened ability to support fish.

Patterson said the sea urchin population hasn’t been well since disease struck in the 80s. Most of them died and scientists still don’t exactly why.

“It came likely came through the mouth of the Panama Canal, and within a few years had spread sort of throughout the entire Caribbean and wiped out 95% of the urchin populations, one of the biggest mass mortality events that really has been recorded in marine animals,” Patterson said.

Patterson said it’s a major reason for the decline of coral reef ecosystems throughout the Caribbean.

That’s why Patterson and his team work to enhance sea urchin populations. His research found feeding dried seaweed to baby cultured long-spined urchins helps them grow faster and behave more like natural urchins.

“It’s extremely ambitious to think that, that we could get these urchins back to these really high densities that they were at. But if we were able to do that, I would certainly feel comfortable saying that it would help the reefs recover,” Patterson said.

Patterson has grown about 1,200 juvenile urchins in the last four years an impressive feat considering how difficult they are to grow.

But there is a lot more work that needs to be done.

Patterson said they would need to culture urchins by the tens of thousands to restore that lawn mowing function to the reef.

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