Hostile Takeover


As ocean temperatures rise, the purple sea urchin completes its hostile takeover of the Oregon coast, changing the landscape forever.

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The growth of the purple sea urchin has set off alarm bells across the world. From Japan to Scandinavia, from California and now the Oregon coast, the spiky dandelion-shaped creatures have taken over large stretches of reef.

The explosion of the purple sea dwellers has transformed once fertile beds of kelp into vast ‘urchin barrens,’ large tracts of dead reef with millions of urchins gobbling what little kelp remains.

In Northern California 90% of the bull kelp forests have been destroyed by urchins. In Oregon, the purple sea urchin has seen a 10,000% increase in some areas since 2014, with hundreds of millions of urchins competing with one another for food.

The surge of purple sea urchins in Oregon began in 2013 when a mysterious disease wiped out the bulk of Oregon’s starfish population overnight.

“It was like one day the starfish were there, all healthy, and the next day they were gone,” says Scott Groth, a shellfish scientist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The starfish was the natural predator of the sea urchin. The dying off of the starfish, combined with rising ocean temperatures and a warmer, less hospitable environment for kelp, have created a perfect storm for urchin barrens.

In some ways, the rise of the purple urchin might be seen as inevitable. Rising ocean temperatures across the globe have made sea creature illnesses more deadly and widespread and has made life for kelp less hospitable.

If the urchin problem persists, the kelp and the ecosystems that rely on it, could be gone for good.

While a solution might be to harvest the sea creatures for food, a market-based solution has proven difficult to generate.

The edible parts of the sea urchins are its gonads. The problem with the massive influx of the creatures is that while they are numerous they are also starving. “All the urchins are in survival mode and the gonads aren’t able to grow,” says Groth.

Also, urchins are only accessible by divers, which makes removing the millions of purple urchins by hand an impossible task at least for now.

That hasn’t stopped some businesses from trying.

Denise Macdonald is the global brand marketing director for Urchinomics, a company that partners with nature conservancies to remove, feed and sell urchins for a profit.

Urchinomics removes swathes of the sea creatures, discards the ones too small for harvest, and relocates them to a nearby feeding facility. There the urchins can feed and grow large enough to sell.

The company sells its products in Asian countries, and was founded with conservation as well as profit in mind.

“Our goal is to get the kelp back,” says Macdonald. “We’re at a tipping point as to whether this problem can be fixed or not, so there’s a sense of urgency on our side.”

Macdonald says Urchinomics has already received inquires from conservation groups in Oregon, but has had difficulties in obtaining permits so close to the shoreline. It took the company two years to be able to set up in California, a lengthy process it does not wish to repeat given the urgency.

The impact of the urchin barrens on Oregon’s fisheries has yet to be seen.

For some fisheries, the urchin barrens have actually been good for business. Port Orford fisherman Aaron Longton says that at least in the short term, the purple sea urchin has made some commercial fishing spots more accessible.

“We’re able to fish in the near shore now, in places where there used to be tons of kelp. I know there are crabbers who are happy not to deal with giant rafts of kelp anymore,” he says.

Still, the fisherman hopes the starfish population will rebound and eat the urchins down to their normal levels. Despite the temporary accessibility offered by the urchins, Longton is under no illusions about how drastic the changes could become.

“It’s frightening to look down and not see all the kelp,” he says. “Life cycles can take a long time. We’re just starting into this mess.”

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