There have been an increasing number of reports about dying sea urchins from St Vincent and six other Caribbean islands, including Antigua, St. Lucia, Dominica, Jamaica, Saba, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Researchers say urchins in the region are dying at a pace that rivals the last mass die-off in 1983, alarming some who assert the trend could further decimate already frail coral reefs.
According to Shamal Connell, a researcher with the Fisheries Service of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, overfishing has already caused a greater abundance of macro algae, which was once kept in check by sea urchins that are now dying.
“It is imperative that we find a solution,” he said.
The mortality event was initially linked only to black sea urchins – Diadema antillarum – which have extremely long, skinny spines. Besides the rock boring sea urchin, two other species have since been impacted, including the West Indian sea egg.
Two scientists say that sea urchin deaths are concerning because sea urchins are herbivores known for removing macro algae from coral reefs and clearing space for baby sea corals to grow, they said.
“It’s very concerning, particularly because it’s happening so quickly,” said Patricia Kramer, a marine biologist and program director of the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment, a scientific collaboration to improve reef conditions in the region.
The deaths worry Kramer and other scientists including Dana Wusinich-Mendez, Atlantic-Caribbean team lead for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coral reef conservation program: “Losing our sea urchins would be really devastating.”
“They’re kind of the unsung heroes of the reefs because they do so many good things,” Kramer said.
St. Thomas was the first U.S. Virgin Island to report deaths in February, although it’s unclear if the new event originated there.
In mid-March, the Dutch Caribbean island of Saba reported similar deaths, noting that 50% of the sea urchin population in its harbour was dead a week later.
Monique Calderon, a fisheries biologist with the government of St. Lucia, said scientists are considering launching a survey to find out why the sea urchins are dying.
In addition to providing protection from rising seas and storm surges generated by hurricanes that have grown stronger with global warming, coral reefs are a major attraction for a region reliant on tourism.
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