Red Sea epidemic kills off sea urchins

STORY: An entire species of sea urchin in the Gulf of Aqaba has been wiped out ..

by a deadly epidemic that's spreading through the Red Sea.

An Israeli research team from Tel Aviv University says this imperils the region’s uniquely resilient coral reefs

and potentially changes the balance of the ecosystem.

Here's lead researcher Omri Bronstein:

(Omri Bronstein, Lead researcher, Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and School of Zoology) "They (sea urchins) are a key ecological player. So, it's not just a species that lingers in coral reefs, it's a species that is essential for the wellbeing of coral reefs and without these species, as we have seen, this is not imagination, we have seen it happening in front of our eyes, and it is not a good future."

The probable culprit is a disease-causing parasite that brings with it a fast death.

In just two days, a long-spined back sea urchin becomes a skeleton with massive tissue loss, according to Bronstein.

Some wash ashore dead.

Others are eaten by fish, likely speeding up contagion.

"Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done to stop this at the moment. What we can do and what we should do is take all actions to try to and limit the impact that this disease is having on the environment."

The first signs of trouble appeared in the Mediterranean Sea.

Sea urchins have over the years invaded the area and made it their home.

A few months ago, Bronstein says reports of sea urchin deaths started to emerge from Greece and Turkey.

While that was less concerning at first since they were invasive species,

the pathogen has now crossed back into the natural population in the Red Sea.

It is now impossible to stop the epidemic

But Bronstein says there is a "very narrow window" to create an isolated population, or broodstock, of the sea urchins elsewhere.

Researchers are hoping they can be reintroduced later on.

"We have the disease in the Mediterranean advancing from the north, we have the Red Sea pollution obliterated by this disease which means if we are to establish a broodstock population, we must act today."

Sea urchins play an important role in maintaining balance in the ecosystem.

They feed on algae that would other otherwise block sunshine and smother the reefs.

"Coral stand no chance competing with algae. That's why we need sea urchins like we need other organisms in the environment to keep the balance and to keep coral reefs thriving."