Scientists are hunting sea urchins to save California’s vital undersea forests
Scientists are in a race now to save the underwater kelp forests along much of the California Coastline that are being devoured by a species of sea urchin. Researchers say bull kelp forests play an important role in the region’s underwater ecosystem and the survival of local fish and wildlife.
MENDOCINO COUNTY, Calif. – Scientists are in a race now to save the underwater kelp forests along much of the California coast that are being devoured by a species of sea urchin. Researchers say bull kelp forests play an important role in the region’s underwater ecosystem and the survival of local fish and wildlife.
“What you used to look at on this beach and see was just a very thick, beautiful kelp forest that hosted a thousand different species,” said Norah Eddy of The Nature Conservancy.
The Nature Conservancy and other groups are leading a pilot project at Casper Beach in Mendocino County to try to restore bull forests. To do that, the researchers assembled a team, partly made up of volunteers, to help exterminate the kelp’s main predator, the purple sea urchin.
“My friends were shocked when they found out that I was deliberately going out to kill animals,” said Joy Hollenback, a veterinarian from Berkeley, who volunteered for the project. “Taking away the urchin means other animals will thrive.”
The population of purple sea urchins grew rapidly in 2013 after their main predator, the sunflower starfish, began to die off. Scientists say warming ocean waters are to blame, making starfish susceptible to a deadly disease.
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“Starfish, I mean all starfish, have a wasting disease, and it causes them to molt,” Hollenback said.
With 90 percent of the sunflower starfish population dead, a large part of California’s underwater ecosystem has been affected.
Since the pilot project began in 2019, researchers say they’ve made progress at Casper Beach, reducing the urchin population there by 80 percent. Recently, Bull Kelp and Sunflower Starfish have started to return to the area.
“When we started there was nothing but rocks and urchins,” said Jared Russo of the Watermen’s Alliance. “Now it’s beautiful. It’s almost the same as before.”
The research is still ongoing, but scientists say they hope to eventually apply the lessons learned from Casper Beach to other coastal areas where kelp forests are under threat.