Sea Urchin Ranching – the new restorative fishing practice?

Vast plains of barren emptiness, devoid of life, bar one animal: the purple sea urchin. These barrens used to be some of the most productive habitats on the planet, now they are empty wastelands. 

Urchin Valley

Purple sea urchin barren – San Miguel Island, California, United States

So what happened? 

Like a story from the bible, plagues rained down on this once pleasant land. First came pestilence. The sea stars started wasting away. Next came years of extreme heat, with coastal Californian waters reaching record breaking temperatures. And finally an explosion. An explosion of purple sea urchins. Everywhere you look would be purple sea urchins. These ravenous monsters devoured the plentiful forests, one unfortunate kelp individual at a time, until nothing was left but the barren wasteland we see today. 

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

Ochre sea star suffering sea star wasting disease – North Beach, Washington, United States

Soon there were terrible consequences for the locals as well. With the loss of kelp forests, commercial shellfisheries collapsed. Red abalones declined by 80% and many livelihoods were shattered.

All is not well on these urchin barrens either, for too much competition leads to empty stomachs. Each urchin, competing against its brothers and sisters, now finds food scarcity a real pressing problem. So many mouths to feed, nowhere near enough kelp to eat.

Purple Sea Urchin - Strongylocentrotus purpuratus

Purple sea urchins – Santa Cruz Island, California, United States

So it seems that no individual is particularly happy after this catastrophic chain of events, not the starving sea urchins, the decimated kelp, or the troubled fishermen. 

But there may be a solution, and one in which may please all involved parties, at least in part. 

The urchins are hungry, so firstly why do we not just feed them? This sounds like such an obvious idea. So let’s take the urchins from their barrens and rehome them in special ranches, where they are provided with plentiful food and allowed to grow plump. This is where the urchin’s story gets a little less happy for them. Unfortunately for them, they are considered quite the delicacy, which conversely is quite pleasing for the fishermen, who can make a good living from fattening up urchins for slaughter. Though the urchin’s eventual fate is not necessarily such a pleasant one, they have at least had a good life eating as much as they please up until the end. And the fishermen make a tasty profit. 

But best of all, the biggest beneficiary from all of this is the kelp itself. Once the ravenous urchins are removed the kelp can grow at an enormous rate, one of the fastest on the planet, and restore the wasteland to its former glory. 

So by choosing Californian sea urchins, you as a consumer can help support perhaps the only restorative fishing practice known today, one bite at a time. 

Ollie, the residential sea otter

Sea otter taking a nap in bull kelp – Race Rocks, British Columbia, Canada

Interested in finding out more? Check out the link below where you can find more info from the authors and the freely available article:

https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/california%E2%80%99s-crashing-kelp-forest/

Free-living Bladderwrack – Why should we care?

To answer this question it helps to look at the bigger picture: Why should we care about the natural environment at all? Though the reasons are many, one of the most obvious is that their functioning directly affects our society. This idea is the basis for the ecosystem services concept.

Ecosystems Services – What are they and why do we need them?

Ecosystem services are the benefits provided by the natural environment to society. They are the foundation of human well-being. These services are numerous and highly varied depending on the ecosystem. In forests and woodlands the production of wood as a raw material for the use in manufacturing is one such service. On a smaller scale, individual species can also provide important services, such as bees acting as pollinators for agricultural plants. These services are invaluable to human existence, and often come with no accompanying monetary cost. Being freely available, many are undervalued and consequently protection for the environments that provide them is frequently limited.

Though ecosystem services are often taken for granted, they are hugely important. Imagine if the continued use of pesticides, most famously neonicatoids, led to the extinction of numerous bee species. Many fruit and seed producing crops would be left unpollinated, leading to crop failure and the consequential food shortages within shops and supermarkets. Hence the ecosystem services we take for granted can have monumental effects on society and our quality of life. It therefore seems necessary to provide protections for these environments so that they can continue to provide the services we rely on.

So now we know what Ecosystem Services are – How does this relate to bladderwrack?

As an underwater environment that many people rarely, if ever, see bladderwrack forests are a hugely underrated environment in terms of their value and the ecosystem services they provide. However bladderwrack forests can be considered similar to giant kelp forests, which are some of the most productive habitats on earth.

Bladderwrack forests are highly productive environments storing large quantities of carbon. Because some of this carbon is sequestered bladderwrack can be considered to provide a service in reducing CO2 within the atmosphere and thus help our society with mitigating climate change.

This is not the only services these underwater forests provide. As an ecosystem engineer; a creature that modifies its environment; bladderwrack also provides the additional benefits of food and shelter for a myriad of different plants and animals, all of which themselves contribute to the ecosystem services provided by this habitat. Notably bladderwrack plays an important part in food production by providing nursery and feeding habitat for juvenile fish of commercial importance including cod, pike and perch. By supporting populations of these important fish species they also provide valuable recreational services including recreational fishing, boating and SCUBA diving.

Plaice resting next to an attached bladderwrack stand

An entirely different service that bladderwrack provides influences people’s health by reducing their contact with harmful environments. Within the Baltic Sea, the enrichment of water bodies with excessive nutrients has led to widespread eutrophication and resulting nuisance blooms of cyanobacteria. These blooms can be detrimental for human health and are monitored by the Finnish Environmental Institute SYKE. Importantly though, bladderwrack forests can act as filters against high nutrient inputs from terrestrial sources, providing a service in reducing excessive load of nutrients and consequently benefiting human health and well-being.

These are just a few of the ecosystem services this fascinating habitat provides, though there are numerous others that have not been listed here. We can therefore conclude that both bladderwrack and the associated community of plants and animals are important for the Baltic Sea ecosystem and many of the services we require.

What about free-living bladderwrack and the associated animal community?

Since free-living bladderwrack fulfils a similar ecological niche to the attached form, albeit generally on soft bottoms rather than rocky substrates, we surmise that it provides similar ecosystem services as well. Both forms support a similar animal community living around and on the seaweed, but the free-living form also supports an additional community living within the sediment below the algal mats. It is likely that this community will provide additional services that benefit us, however what these services are is difficult to tell unless we have a greater understanding of the associated animal communities of the free-living form. Hence this is where our study comes in. In one of our projects we are interested in identifying the animals on and below the surface of the sediment, and how these communities vary from those of bare, soft bottoms. To find out how important these creatures are to our society we will delve below the surface of this barely studied habitat.

Free-living bladderwrack forest

The curious case of free-living Fucus: what is it and where does it come from?

Bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus) is a brown algae commonly found within many parts of the Baltic Sea. It forms structurally complex habitats at depths of 0.5-7m, providing shelter and food for many marine invertebrates and fish. It is one of the major foundation species in the Baltic Sea coastal zone. Generally, bladderwrack is considered a rocky shore organism, being most notability found growing attached to rocks, boulders and pebbles. However, interestingly an unattached form can also be found.

A meadow of free-living bladderwrack, resulting in 100% coverage. Image taken in the Askö area (Sweden)

These unattached individuals form free-living populations, that can be quite extensive (10-100m2) occurring year after year at the same sites. They have been observed since the late 19th century (Kjellman, 1890) and are generally described as pieces torn from attached populations and deposited in sheltered locations, with no ecological significance. However with modern molecular techniques; including microsatellites and DNA barcoding; we aim to test this theory.

 

The origins of life?

Firstly we aim to test this long held idea that the free-living populations are solely supplied by the surrounding attached populations. To put it simply, do they rely on supplies of torn off pieces to start and replenish a population or are they fully or partially self-sustaining through their own means? This really is a question of ‘can they reproduce?’, and if so ‘how do they do it?’.

The processes involved in forming and maintaining free-living bladderwrack populations

We surmise that the founding members of any free-living population are supplied by pieces from attached populations, as has been suggested since their first documentation. However this is where the ideas diverge, rather than assuming any replenishment to the population are from supplies of material from the nearby attached population, we view that these free-living populations have some level of self-sustainability.

How do they do this? The current idea is through fragmentation, a method of asexual reproduction where new, smaller, genetically identical individuals are formed through breakage from the main individual. If you ever get your hands on a free-living bladderwrack individual, you will see how easily one individual becomes many with just the simplest of handling. Through splitting into many individuals that continue to grow and eventually break apart once more, soft bottoms can quickly become dominated by many genetically identical plants.

Two distinct morph types from different free-living populations around the Askö area (Sweden)

The level at which this asexual reproduction occurs will be defined by the amount of genetic variation within the population. If populations contain only a few genetically different individuals then we can assume that fragmentation plays a large role in maintaining these free-living populations. If we observe the reverse; many genetically different individuals; then it is likely that either attached populations are largely responsible for supplying these populations, or that the free-living plants can themselves reproduce sexually. The latter seems improbable, in part because few free-living individuals have been observed to form sexual structures known as receptacles.

 

Population connectivity?

Now that we have established the possible mechanisms for forming, maintaining and regenerating free-living populations, we can consider the dispersal of a normally immobile seaweed. It is frequently observed that broken off pieces from attached individuals can be transported by currents over great distances; and since reattachment is incredibly rare; either these free-floating pieces eventually sink becoming loose-lying pieces which eventually decay or they contribute material to free-living populations.

However the question is, are free-living individuals equally as mobile? Can free-living individuals migrate between patches, and do distances and other abiotic factors affect their dispersal?

We currently have little idea as to answering this question, but it seems likely that distance and geological features will be the major influences on the dispersal potential. By identifying the genetic variation; or the level of relatedness; between and among populations we will hope to answer this intriguing question.

 

Ecologically important?

Thirdly, we have little idea of the importance of free-living populations. What function and ecosystem services do they provide in the coastal zone? Through inhabiting soft bottoms, that are normally uninhabitable by the attached form of bladderwrack, they can provide a complex habitat that would normally not be found on this substrate type. Consequently this habitat can support a vast variety of plants and animals that would otherwise not be found in that location. Through environmental surveys and the monitoring of biological measurements we aim to identify the important functions and services that are provided by the free-living populations.

 

The importance of this study

Now comes the most important question: Why do we need to study these questions in the first place? As an integral part of the Baltic Sea ecosystem, free-living bladderwrack is considered an important biotope at risk of damage. As such they are listed on HELCOM Red List of biotopes and habitats as endangered (HELCOM, 2013). This means that policy makers and conservationists need to implement methods to best protect these populations. Without adequate knowledge, including the genetic diversity, of these populations successful management is doubtful. As such, if we wish to maintain the health of these populations and consequently that of the Baltic Sea, we need all the research we can collect.

 

References

HELCOM (2013) Red List of Baltic Sea underwater biotopes, habitats and biotope complexes. Baltic Sea Environmental Proceedings No. 138.

Kjellman FR (1890) Handbok i Skandinaviens hafsalgflora. I. Fucoidae., Stockholm