The New York Times: Swarm of sea urchins wreaks destruction on US West Coast

NEWPORT, Ore. — Tens of millions of voracious purple sea urchins that have already chomped their way through towering underwater kelp forests in California are spreading north to Oregon, sending the delicate marine ecosystem off the shore into such disarray that other critical species are starving to death.

A recent count found 350 million purple sea urchins on one Oregon reef alone — more than a 10,000% increase since 2014. And in Northern California, 90% of the giant bull kelp forests have been devoured by the urchins, perhaps never to return.

Vast “urchin barrens” — stretches of denuded seafloor dotted with nothing but hundreds of the spiny orbs — have spread to coastal Oregon, where kelp forests were once so thick it was impossible to navigate some areas by boat.

The underwater annihilation is killing off important fisheries for red abalone and red sea urchins and creating such havoc that scientists in California are partnering with a private business to collect the over-abundant purple urchins and “ranch” them in a controlled environment for ultimate sale to a global seafood market.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Scott Groth, a shellfish scientist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “You can’t just go out and smash them. There’s too many. I don’t know what we can do.”

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