California's Urchin Problem


1. Background

As purple sea urchins continue to multiply along the state’s coasts, California’s kelp forests are struggling to maintain their existence. [1] Historically, purple sea urchins did not pose a significant threat to kelp forests. [2] However, due to both human interference and unfortunate natural events, the urchins’ predator populations have vanished. [3] These disappearances have fostered the urchins’ destructive potential. [4]

2. Issue Importance

Sea urchins cripple entire coastal ecosystems by devouring kelp forests. Kelp forests are a foundational element of coastal ecosystems, providing both sources of food and shelter to hundreds of marine species. [5] However, in exhausting the kelp, the urchins start a destabilizing chain reaction. Gradually, each tier of the food chain, starting with the species directly dependent on kelp, will be unable to sustain themselves and must compete over food sources that can no longer replenish themselves. [6] Unfortunately for these ecosystems, this decline is exacerbated and often made permanent by the urchins’ resilient nature. These urchins can persist for decades without nutrients and will consume anything remaining on the seafloor once they deplete the kelp. [7] Such depletion also impairs human fishing along the coastal waters. Kelp forests serve as carbon sinks, preventing the further acidification of the ocean and keeping the surrounding water cool. [8]Fish, cold-blooded animals, require cool water to survive and reproduce effectively. [9] Hence, without this carbon sink functionality, waters previously bountiful with fish will grow barren. Thus, kelp forests’ continued disappearance will result in coastal conditions increasingly less hospitable to both humans and marine life.

3. The Predators

Both California sea otters and sea stars, the urchin’s predominant predators, have practically vanished from the state’s coasts. While the otters once kept the urchin population in check, decades of hunting and disrupting their food supply has dwindled their population to the point of severe endangerment. [10] Likewise, the state’s sea star populations, once hoped to be a potential mitigator of the urchin problem, have suffered a dire fate. [11] In only two years, the sea star densovirus, a condition that rapidly melts its sea star host, has spontaneously emerged and eliminated millions of California’s sea stars. [12] Without these necessary predators, the purple sea urchin spreads unhindered across the seafloor.

4. Governing Law on Kelp

California’s Fish and Game Commission (CFG) is a regulatory body established to ensure the stability of the State’s ecosystems, including kelp forests. [13] The CFG is an efficient regulatory body because it can enact or amend protocols it deems to be of immediate environmental need. [14] It contributes towards restoring kelp ecosystems by using this responsive power to limit harmful human interactions while promoting beneficial ones. Chapter 6 of California’s Fish and Game Code manifests this balance. [15] The chapter establishes a licensing system to incentivize the safe use and taking of kelp while penalizing those who injure the forests. [16] Such legislation has led to local groups re-bedding previously barren kelp forests [17] and corporations investing in kelp farming projects, acts that will ultimately improve our understanding of kelp forests and their ecosystems. [18]

5. Governing Law on Urchins

The CFG also regulates the cause of the kelp forest collapse, purple sea urchins. [19] As such, in 2018 they enacted a regulation governing purple sea urchins in response to their perceived threat. [20] However, this regulation’s 35-urchin-per-person daily takings limit [21] turned out to be an obstacle that hindered the effectiveness of volunteer urchin removers in Northern California, a region whose urchin problem is more dire than the rest of the state. [22] Fortunately, the CFG quickly repealed the inefficient regulation and replaced it with its current regulation, which increased the taking ceiling to forty gallons in Northern California. [23] Regulations like this enable those who remove the urchins in considerable quantities to usefully repurpose them rather than wastefully destroy them. [24]

6. Why it is still a Problem

Despite these government and individual efforts, it still does not bode well for California’s kelp forests. This is partially due to the steadily increasing temperatures of the entire planet, something California cannot curtail on its own. [25] Kelp forests depend on nutrients from cold seafloor water, but rising temperatures disrupt their access to these nutrients. [26] This grim outlook is compounded by the fact that the urchin’s predator populations show no sign of rebound. At the same time the sea otter population started to recover, the orca’s primary food sources vanished. [27] This naturally resulted in the orcas choosing to hunt the otters, stalling the otter’s recovery. [28] Scientists also speculate that rising ocean temperatures facilitate the conditions necessary for the sea-star-decimating densovirus to thrive. [29] Without substantial rebound from either predator, hundreds of millions of urchins will have permanently replaced California’s kelp forests. [30]

[1] Alastair Bland, As Oceans Warm, the World’s Kelp Forests Begin Disappear, Yale Environment 360, Nov. 20, 2017, https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-oceans-warm-the-worlds-giant-kelp-forests-begin-to-disappear.

[2] John Charles Kunich, Losing Nemo: The Mass Extinction Now Threatening the World’s Ocean Hotspots, 30 Colum. J. Envtl. L. 1, 31 (2005).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Robin Kundis Craig, Taking the Long View of the Ocean Ecosystems: Historical Science, Marine Restoration, and the Ocean’s Act of 2000, 29 Ecology L.Q. 649, 692 (2002).

[6] Kendra Pierre-Louis, California’s Underwater Forest Are Being Eaten by the ‘Cockroaches of the Ocean’, The New York Times, Oct. 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/22/climate/kelp-climate-change-california.html.

[7] Alastair Bland, Eating Urchins: Can Gourmet Diners Reverse the Collapse of an Ecosystem?, Hakai Institute (Sep. 20, 2019), https://www.hakaimagazine.com/news/eating-urchins-can-gourmet-diners-reverse-the-collapse-of-an-ecosystem/.

[8] Dan Laffoley & Gabriel Grimsditch, The Management of Natural Coastal Carbon Sinks, International Union for the Conversation of Nature (Nov. 23, 2009), http://danlaffoley.com/wp-content/uploads/CarbonManagementSummaryLR.pdf.

[9] Erik Stokstad, Warming oceans are hurting seafood supply – and things are getting worse, American Association for the Advancement of Science (Feb. 28, 2019), https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/02/warming-oceans-are-hurting-seafood-supply-and-things-are-getting-worse.

[10] Craig supra note 5.

[11] Samantha Clark, Sea star disease raises concerns about West Coast urchins, Santa Cruz Sentinel (Apr. 7, 2015), https://www.santacruzsentinel.com/2015/04/07/sea-star-disease-raises-concerns-about-west-coast-urchins/.

[12] Id.

[13] Cal. Fish & Game §§ 200 - 205 (2017).

[14] Cal. Fish & Game § 399 (2017).

[15] Cal. Fish & Game §§ 6650-751 (2016).

[16] Id.

[17] Ryan Hamill, Students reforest kelp beds; NEW GROWTH : The project was launched three years ago in response to the estimated 80 percent reduction in off-shore kelp beds in the county, Orange County Register, Jun. 10, 2004, https://advance.lexis.com/api/permalink/7fb4826c-89d6-4452-8c79-a41f30714fef/?context=1516831.

[18] Cynthia Washicko, Experimental project off Catalina Island aims to make fuel out of kelp, Daily Breeze(May 14, 2017), https://www.dailybreeze.com/2017/05/14/experimental-project-off-catalina-island-aims-to-make-fuel-out-of-kelp/.

[19] Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14 § 29.06 (2019).

[20] Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14 § 29.11 (2018) (repealed 2019).

[21] Id.

[22] Emergency Regulation to Raise Recreational Purple Sea Urchin Daily Bag Limit, 2018 CA Regulation Text 25170 (proposed Apr. 3, 2018) (to be codified at Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14 § 29.11).

[23] Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14 § 29.06 (2019).

[24] Sandy Mazza, Divers hammer thousands of urchins to save Palos Verdes Peninsula kelp forests, Daily Breeze( Aug. 13, 2014), https://www.dailybreeze.com/2014/08/13/divers-hammer-thousands-of-urchins-to-save-palos-verdes-peninsula-kelp-forests/.

[25] Bland, supra note 1..

[26] Id.

[27] Craig, supra note 5..

[28] Id.

[29] Clark, supra note 11..

[30] Tens of millions of sea urchins wreaking destruction on US West Coast, CNBC (Oct. 24, 2019), https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/25/tens-of-millions-of-sea-urchins-wreaking-destruction-on-us-west-coast.html.

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