A species of Sea urchin has undergone a devastating wipeout on reefs off the city of Eilat in Israel. The entire population of Black Sea urchins, Diadema setosum, has died off in just weeks from a suspected pathogen, with their rapid decline now causing fear not just for their species’ survival, but for other urchin species, as well as the coral reefs they inhabit and keep clear of algae.
Dr. Omri Bronstein of Tel Aviv University, whose research team is following the echinoderm epidemic, predicted that within a short time, all of these sea urchins, in both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, will get sick and die.
Bronstein’s research team from Tel Aviv University’s School of Zoology and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History has sent an urgent report to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, where emergency steps for saving the coral reefs are currently being considered.
Captive breeding program
The first step in conserving the Black Sea urchins is to ark them and set up a captive breeding program, but at the marine institutions where they pump in water directly from the Red Sea, their Black Sea urchins have died from the disease too. An invasive population of Black Sea urchins has also been affected in the Mediterranean, as well as other urchin species, yet if Blacks are wiped out altogether from the Red Sea experts are even considering re-introducing them by collecting from other invasive populations which are so far unaffected, yet from the same genetic group.
Scientists have called for the run-off of fertilizer and pollutants to be halted into the Red Sea, as they will fuel algae growth. Urchin die-offs have affected seas such as the Caribbean, and the knock-on effect takes years for coral reefs to recover, while urchin numbers return to pre-wipe-out numbers. Reports of mass die-offs have also come from other Red Sea countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Image credit Quartl, CC BY-SA 3.0