Florida relies on sea urchins to restore coral reefs

By Lorenzo Castro E.

Miami, Dec 17 (EFE).- Some 200 long-spined sea urchins are the spearhead of a project in Florida to clean toxic algae from the coral that makes up the world’s third-largest barrier reef.

After spending 6 1/2 months in tanks at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in the Tampa Bay area, the sea urchins were released into Atlantic waters in the Florida Keys as part of the effort to restore the reef, which extends about 360 miles (580 km) from the Dry Tortugas to Port St. Lucie, north of Palm Beach.

One of those involved in the project, the University of Florida’s Joshua Patterson, told Efe that the recent release was the first step toward repopulating the reef with tens of thousands of long-spined sea urchins (Diadema antillarum), a species that nearly went extinct in the 1980s.

The surfaces of reefs in Jamaica, where long-spined urchins managed to recover without human intervention, are largely free of toxic algae, Patterson said.

Researchers at UF, The Florida Aquarium (TFA) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have devoted years to finding a way to breed the urchins, Keri O’Neil, the senior scientist of TFA’s Coral Conservation Program, said.

Now that the urchins have been released, the attention turns to monitoring the situation to “see if they survive,” she told Efe.

Once plentiful in the Caribbean, the Diadema antillarum was devastated in the 1980s by a mysterious disease that wiped out all but 7 percent of the long-spined sea urchins in the region, leaving coral essentially defenseless against harmful macro-algae.

Reefs are important in themselves and because the eco-systems they generate account for up to a quarter of marine biodiversity, raising the stakes for the effort to restore coral.

“We are in a race to help the world’s coral reefs, and this release of critically important algae grazers is a huge step forward,” O’Neil said. EFE lce/dr

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