Urchins and Indicators

Fun fact: Fort Bragg used to be a major sea urchin fishery. These prickly (and delicious) creatures made a lot of people rather wealthy in the 1980s, and the urchin fishery was a large part of Fort Bragg’s commercial fishery. Then, a strange thing started happening. Urchins became much less plentiful. Fishermen insisted they weren’t doing anything unusual, but they got blamed anyway. The urchin fishery collapsed, and a lot of people who were flying high at the height of the boom ended up in dire financial straits as a result.

The truth about what happened to the urchins was a bit more complicated than it appeared at first glance, and illustrates some interesting conflicts that arise when we start talking about how to manage commercial fisheries. Fisheries management is a delicate balance between the needs of human seafood consumers and animals, as well as sea life in general. An unhealthy fishery can create a domino effect that leads to widespread problems across the marine ecosystem, not just among commercially valuable species. For this reason, fisheries conservation should be a topic of interest to all people who care about ocean health and marine environments, whether you eat seafood or not.

What happened to the urchins was simple: Around the time that the urchin industry started booming in California, the otter population was in a critical state. Otter numbers were declining rapidly, and the state established programs to try and preserve and restore otters. Those programs, as it turned out, worked. Guess what otters like to eat?

A strange war developed between fishermen and otters, much like we see with the timber industry and spotted owls, as the fishing community resented the otters encroaching on a commercially valuable species. The otters, though, are here to stay, and that means that commercial urchin fishing isn’t very viable in many parts of California anymore. It would appear that the otters have won this round, and given that otters rely heavily on urchins as a food source while humans do not, I don’t really begrudge them this. Plus, they’re also really cute.

Urchins themselves are an indicator species, a very valuable one. Because they are highly sensitive to predation by nature of being slow and tasty[1. Yes, the spines are a deterrent, but not much of one, evidently.], changes in sea urchin populations can be indicative of larger shifts within an ecosystem, like an increase in the numbers of predators. A shift in the predator-prey balance is indicative of a problem at sea just as it is on land, making urchin monitoring important for environmental scientists interested in tracking what’s going on inside a marine ecosystem like California’s offshore waters.

These organisms are also very sensitive to pollution. This makes them a terrific indicator species for water quality monitoring not just in the natural environment, but also in aquariums, which is why many aquariums have urchins in their big tanks. It’s not just for ambiance, it’s because urchin health can be tipoff when a water quality problem is developing in the tank. Incidentally, some urchin species can live hundreds of years, if they manage to avoid predators.

Identification of indicator species like sea urchins is critically important. People can track ecosystem health by monitoring such animals, and they can play an important role in habitat restoration as well as monitoring. If an indicator species is abundant and healthy, it means something is going right. A restoration is proceeding as desired, and an ecosystem is remaining stable. If the indicator species is in trouble, there’s a problem, and that problem could become magnified, and will spread to other species. Some of these species are hardy enough to stay healthy during initial environmental changes like rises in pollution, but they will eventually succumb.

The urchin is one of the canaries in the coal mine. Tracking urchin populations gives people warning, and an opportunity to intervene before a situation careens out of control.

Tracking urchins, however, requires cooperation with commercial fisheries, and this has turned out to be a sticking point in some communities. Some crews don’t want government representatives or scientists on board, even if they are just there to study urchins, and not to do anything else. It can be hard to find crews that will cooperate with scientists who want to perform studies. This in turn means that scientists miss out on substantial accumulated knowledge. Long-term crews know the waters they work in, they know the animals they should see, they know what the environment is normally like. Working with an experienced crew can mean the difference between identifying something unusual and missing it, or thinking that something is unusual when it’s really not.

Cooperation with people actually working fisheries is critical, but unfortunately the prevailing attitude among some environmental advocates seems to be that fishing communities, like logging communities, are only interested in extracting the last drop of their natural resources and will stop at nothing to do it. It’s also not uncommon to see some education bias going on, with scientists assuming that loggers and fishers are uneducated and unknowledgeable, and therefore the environment needs to be protected from their ignorant depredations. In fact, the contrary is true; when you are relying on the environment for your livelihood and the future of your family and your descendants, you have a very personal and vested interest in protecting it, to ensure that stocks will be available in the future.

Insular communities tend to reject interference from outsiders, an attitude that is not always entirely healthy. But outsiders can be just as guilty of ignoring local knowledge and riding roughshod over communities. A truly cooperative effort with fisheries monitoring, like seen in the cod fisheries off the Grand Banks, could result in real, usable, helpful data that could make a huge difference.