In Hotter Climate, 'Zombie' Urchins Are Winning And Kelp Forests Are Losing

Mar 31, 2021
Originally published on March 31, 2021 8:23 am

They're purple, spiky and voracious, and just off the West Coast, there are more of them than you can count.

Purple sea urchins have exploded in recent years off California, covering the ocean floor in what divers describe as a "purple carpet." And they devour kelp: the once-lush forests of seaweed that hugged the coastline are disappearing. Since 2014, 95 percent of the kelp have vanished across a large part of Northern California, most of it bull kelp.

Kelp forests provide a crucial ecosystem for a broad range of other marine life and animals, so their demise threatens the ecology across the entire stretch of California coast. The kelp's abrupt decline is being driven by warming waters, and it's a case of how climate change is helping push already-stressed ecosystems over the edge.

Urchins are a normal part of the kelp forest, but a double whammy of ecological change has caused a population boom. Even now, with little food left, the urchins are still able to survive.

"They're kind of like zombies," says Morgan Murphy-Cannella, kelp restoration coordinator with Reef Check California, a group of citizen scientist divers. "They can last for a long time without eating, and they can just live. They're a very bizarre animal."

To give kelp forests a chance against the urchin hoards, scientists and divers are trying out new strategies to carve out refuges. The hope is by removing the urchins, or even catching them for dinner tables, small pockets of kelp might begin to come back.

Across much of Northern California, purple urchins have little kelp left to eat, but still can survive.
Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS

Underwater forests

California's kelp forests are not unlike redwood forests on land. The towering seaweed reaches 30 to 60 feet tall.

At its peak, kelp grows up to two feet per day in the West Coast's cold, rough waters, which are rich in nutrients. But in 2014, the ocean off California began warming.

A mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean, known as "the Blob," began expanding, raising temperatures high above normal. It was also low in nutrients, stressing the kelp, and it lasted for several years.

At the same time, a widespread disease was shifting the dynamics in the ecosystem. Purple sea urchins are usually kept in check by their main predator on California's North Coast: the sunflower sea star. The large sea star (also known as a starfish) has more than 20 arms and spans several feet across.

In 2013, sea star wasting disease spread across the West Coast, decimating all kinds of sea star populations. Sunflower sea stars began disappearing and are now listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

Sunflower sea stars, the purple urchin's main predator in Northern California, have disappeared due to sea star wasting disease. In the image on the right, taken in 2015, you can see Sunflower sea star eating a purple urchin.
Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS

With their predator largely gone, purple urchins boomed. While they usually hide in crevices, they became increasingly bold as competition for food increased.

"Sometimes we see dozens of them crawling up the stem of the kelp and taking it down from there," says Meredith McPherson, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.

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The urchins have been particularly devastating for bull kelp, the main species off Northern California. The plants only last a year, re-growing every spring. But as soon as the adult plants release spores to seed new kelp, urchins stand ready to devour them before they have a chance to grow.

Using a 34-year record of satellite imagery, McPherson and her colleagues measured the loss of kelp forests off California's Sonoma and Mendocino counties, finding that 95 percent are gone.

"We were expecting something like that," she says. "But it doesn't really make it any easier to digest in terms of the actual loss of the coastal ecosystem."

McPherson says climate change plays a role. Studies show the hotter climate is making marine heat waves more intense and more frequent. Warmer ocean temperatures also make sea stars more susceptible to diseases.

"The combination of all these abrupt changes is what caused the collapse of the kelp forest on the North Coast," McPherson says. "The stressors from climate change, it just really puts these systems, not just marine systems, into precarious positions."

So, now West Coast divers are searching for ways to a small dent in the onslaught.

Strategy #1: Scoop up urchins

As the purple urchin numbers grew, divers in Fort Bragg, California watched their livelihood begin to slip away. The decline in kelp also meant the disappearance of red urchins, the larger and more commercially valuable species. Catches began declining, as well as for abalone, another valuable species.

So, commercial divers teamed up on a pilot project with Reef Check California, a group of citizen-scientist divers. They identified a small patch of kelp forest near Fort Bragg that had become an "urchin barren" in the hope of bringing it back.

A commercial urchin diver removes purple urchin from a targeted kelp forest restoration project in Noyo Harbor near Fort Bragg, Calif.
Tristin McHugh

Beginning last summer, divers began collecting as many urchins as they could over an area the size of three football fields, filling their nets until they were brimming with purple spikes.

"It's pretty amazing to see them work," Murphy-Cannella says, who coordinates the project. "Some guys have rakes attached to their hand kind of like Wolverine from X-Men."

The divers removed more than 20,000 pounds of urchins, which were then taken to a composting facility. To keep the urchin numbers low, they plan to return to the site this year. Divers from Reef Check California are also doing scientific monitoring to measure how well it's working. The hope is that spores floating in from nearby healthy kelp forests will seed new growth.

"I think that we can do this," Murphy-Cannella says. "It's going to have to be a long term project, but I think we can create these oasis zones where we can see kelp grow back."

Strategy #2: Bring back predators

In Central California, kelp forests are doing better, thanks in part to urchin-eating sea otters.
Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS

The urchin's main predator off Northern California, the sunflower sea star, still shows few signs of coming back. Researchers at the University of Washington have begun a breeding program to learn more about raising them in captivity, in the hope of reintroducing them someday.

Still, sunflower sea stars aren't the only predator out there. Purple urchins were once eaten by another on the North Coast: sea otters.

In the 1800s, California's sea otters were hunted almost to extinction for their fur. A small group managed to survive near Big Sur and has expanded, aided by otter rescue and rehabilitation efforts by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and others.

Where otters are found today in Central California, kelp forests are doing significantly better, in part because of the otters' healthy appetite. Sea otters that feed heavily on urchins even develop purplish teeth.

A marine heat wave known as "the Blob" stressed California's kelp forests with abnormally high temperatures.
Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS

Though their numbers have grown, sea otters still haven't expanded into Northern California where they once lived. Migrating north would take them through waters heavily used by great white sharks. While the sharks don't generally eat otters, they do take exploratory bites which can lead to the otter's death. Establishing otter populations in San Francisco Bay and elsewhere would require deliberate reintroduction.

Even then, while otters play a crucial role in maintaining healthy kelp forests, they may not do much for kelp that's already disappeared. In urchin barrens, there's little food to eat, so the urchins there are emaciated, offering little nutritional value to otters. New research shows otters focus on hunting urchins in healthy kelp forests instead, leaving the areas outside alone.

Strategy #3: humans are predators too

Stephanie Mutz has created a small role for herself, too, in the effort to reduce urchins off California. On a street corner in San Francisco, Mutz unloads bins of purple urchins from her van for some waiting customers.

Mutz is carving out a seafood market for purple urchins. She's a diver who runs Sea Stephanie Fish, based in Santa Barbara, California. On the West Coast, most diners eat uni from red urchins. (Uni is the urchin's rich, yellow reproductive organ found on the menus of many sushi restaurants.) But diving over the years, Mutz has watched purple urchins as they've encroached.

Divers in Fort Bragg have removed more than 20,000 pounds of urchins (left). Sea Stephanie Fish sells purple urchins straight to customers (right).
Claire Nasr; Lauren Sommer / NPR

"It's frustrating to see all of these and watch them eat all the kelp," she says. "It's frustrating as heck."

While they're easy to catch, purple urchins often don't have much uni inside since they're competing with each other for food.

"A lot of times, they're super skinny or empty inside," she says. "They're not marketable at all."

So, with her partners, Mutz began urchin ranching. She catches purple urchins in the wild and brings them to the Cultured Abalone Farm just north of Santa Barbara. The urchins spend several weeks eating, fattening up until they reach market weight.

Mutz first started offering them to restaurants, but with the pandemic, shifted to selling directly to customers. When she recently opened orders for a delivery day in the Bay Area, she sold 300 urchins online in six minutes.

"The word has gotten out about the nuisance of the purple urchins," she says. "So it's like 'Oh, I'm doing really great for the environment. I'm going to eat these guys.'"

Other urchin ranching projects are getting underway in California as well. The seafood company Urchinomics is developing a site in Bodega Bay with the goal of eventually selling many tons of purple urchins every year.

Still, given the scale of the problem, eating purple urchins is only likely to make a small dent, at best. Knocking the urchins back would take either a widespread shift in ocean conditions or an urchin disease. But the hope is that all of these strategies could buy California kelp forests a little more time.

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One of the last remaining kelp forests near Elk, Calif., on the Northern California coast.
Terry Chea / AP

NOEL KING, HOST:

California has a sea urchin problem. They've exploded in numbers off the Northern California coast. And these purple, spiky urchins are wiping out crucial kelp forests. So scientists are now searching for ways to slow them down. Here's NPR's Lauren Sommer.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Diving in a kelp forest is a lot like walking through a real forest. The seaweed is 30 to 60 feet tall.

MEREDITH MCPHERSON: It's very surreal. You're kind of swimming around, and then you have this large canopy over you that's kind of filtering light.

SOMMER: At least that's how it used to be, says Meredith McPherson, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. She and her colleagues found that 95% of kelp forests have disappeared in counties north of San Francisco. Kelp provides a key habitat for all kinds of marine life.

MCPHERSON: We were expecting something like that, but it doesn't really make it any easier to digest in terms of the actual loss of the coastal ecosystem.

SOMMER: It happened because of an ecological double whammy. First came a marine heatwave known as the blob. Water temperatures rose far above normal. Then came a more direct attack from purple sea urchins.

MCPHERSON: They are voracious grazers.

SOMMER: They devour kelp.

MCPHERSON: Sometimes we see dozens of them crawling up the stem of the kelp and kind of taking it down from there.

SOMMER: Normally, urchins are kept in check by their main predator off Northern California, a giant starfish, or sea star, as scientists call them, known as the sunflower sea star. But they've been wiped out by sea star wasting disease. Scientists think that both the disease and the blob of warm water were made worse by climate change. Even now, with most of the kelp off Northern California gone, the urchins are still everywhere.

MORGAN MURPHY-CANNELLA: They're kind of like zombies. You know, they can last for a long time without eating, and they just live.

SOMMER: Morgan Murphy-Cannella is kelp restoration coordinator with Reef Check California, a group of citizen scientist divers. She's leading an effort to help beat back the urchins on a small section of coast where divers are systematically removing them.

MURPHY-CANNELLA: And they clear by hand. Some guys have, like, rakes attached to their hands, kind of like Wolverine from "X-Men."

SOMMER: Last year, they removed more than 20,000 pounds of purple urchins. The idea is to give kelp seedlings a chance to grow, at least in one spot.

MURPHY-CANNELLA: I think that we can do this. It's going to have to be a long-term project, but I think we can create these oasis zones where we can see kelp grow back.

SOMMER: And because the urchins are so widespread, some are trying another approach.

STEPHANIE MUTZ: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi.

MUTZ: What's your order number?

SOMMER: On a corner in San Francisco, Stephanie Mutz puts four purple urchins into a bag for a customer. She runs Sea Stephanie Fish, based in Santa Barbara. These customers are after the urchin's uni, its coveted reproductive part.

MUTZ: I mean, they're just so good.

SOMMER: As a diver, Mutz watched these purple urchins boom. They're easy to catch, but without a lot of kelp to eat, they don't have much uni inside.

MUTZ: A lot of times, they're just, like, super skinny or empty inside, and they're not marketable at all.

SOMMER: So Mutz and her partners have started urchin ranching. They catch them in the wild, then fatten them up at a shellfish farm. Since the pandemic started, she's been selling direct to customers. For this San Francisco pop-up, her online store sold 300 urchins in six minutes.

MUTZ: The word has gotten out about the nuisance of the purple urchin. So it's like, oh, I'm doing really great for the environment; I'm going to eat these guys.

SOMMER: Other urchin ranching projects are getting underway in California. Eating urchins isn't likely to solve the problem alone. But in a few places, it might buy the kelp a little more time until conditions get better.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.