Grant Downey was out of the Pacific Ocean for about 10 minutes when he realized he could no longer see out of his right eye.
Second-generation commercial divers were under higher-than-usual waves to discover their catch-red sea urchins, which were prized for them by restaurants. university, or sushi-grade gonads. But red urchins, which live in underwater kelp forests, have become harder to find in recent years. And each additional foot of depth forced more nitrogen into his bloodstream, increasing the risk of dangerous bubbles forming in his body or brain.
This time, with the wall painted black half his vision, he feared that he would eventually push his body too far. Although his right eye regained its function 20 minutes later, the 33-year-old decided he was done with such a risky dive, even if the decision ended his earnings.
“I knew it was me,” Downey said last March, nearly seven months after the incident, which took place off the coast of Fort Bragg in northern California. “I’ll probably go down 65 feet, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that deep, deep shore. It’s getting harder and harder for people who are still trying to go.”
Anyone who relies on California’s kelp forests for a living can tell you that something is terribly wrong beneath the surface of the Pacific. It’s not just the red urchin population that is declining. The dense, autumn-toned canopy of seaweed that once provided food, shelter, and safe haven for hundreds of marine species from sea otters to abalone, rockfish to brittle stars. Where lush strands of giant kelp or whiplike bull kelp once swarmed, entire swaths of underwater forests have been nipped in nubs by one particular predator: the purple urchin.
People sometimes refer to purple urchins as the “zombies” of the sea—a result of their prodigious appetites and formidable survival skills. (They can survive in “starvation” mode for years.) Resembling fangs, baseball-sized pom-poms, purple urchins are omnivores, eating everything from plankton to dead fish. But they are particularly fond of kelp, and they can chew through the holdfasts that anchor each strand to the ocean floor.
The resulting “urchin barren”, as divers call them, can stretch for hundreds of miles, scientists reported earlier this year as damage to some northern California kelp forests 95 percent loss since 2012.
Kelp is the key to much of the West Coast’s marine biodiversity. Like terrestrial forests, kelp (technically a form of brown algae) are important carbon sinks, converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into leaves and canopy. But unlike trees, which return most of that carbon to the atmosphere as they decompose, dead kelp have potential To sink to the bottom of the sea, providing a natural form of forfeiture. The kelp forests and hungry urchins waiting on the seagrass meadow have been decimated, severely disrupting the cycle.
“We are actually losing critically important systems, which means losing fisheries, losing recreational opportunities, losing carbon sequestration, losing coastal protection,” said Fiorenza Micheli, a marine ecologist and codirector of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions. “It’s basically the equivalent of losing the rainforest—except we don’t see it.”
What parts of the west coast have seen 10,000 percent increase in purple urchins over a period of five years. The large numbers of “purps” as commercial divers have caused them to rock communities along the coasts of California and southern Oregon. As a result, many kelp lovers—professional fishermen, recreational enthusiasts, scuba divers, and scientists, to name a few—have become increasingly desperate to take the purple sea urchin infestation into their own hands, often with hammers and dive knives. are equipped with.
but people in a hurry Some What some scientists say about the disappearance of kelp is that those calling for action are forgetting the fact that purple urchins are a symptom of a much bigger problem. After all, tireless invertebrates weren’t always the villains of underwater horror stories.
before purple The urchin explosion, the kelp forest was good for commercial divers and coastal communities alike. In the 1970s, access to new processing techniques and accelerated shipping allowed American fisheries to begin exporting red urchins to Japan. The resulting urchin “gold rush” attracted many commercial divers to California’s Central Coast, including Grant Downey’s father, Patrick, who arrived here. late 1980s. In 2000, the recreational abalone diving industry contributed estimated $17 million towards local economies; Commercial Red Urchins Ranked in State Average $2.6 million per year from 2011 to 2015.
Growing up, Grant Downey saw firsthand how much money commercial divers could make by collecting red urchins. in his 20s, he was lucky enough to get a permit (they are awarded by lottery) to join the industry. For years, two downies would descend into the Fort Bragg kelp forest to collect red urchins, breathing compressed air through long, thin, flexible air tubes attached to one of their boats above. In just two years, little Downey was able to pay off his trade school loan. He also bought a house before the age of 30.
“We had a bunch of golden years,” Senior Downey said press democrat, a newspaper in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 2019.
The decline of the West Coast’s kelp forests began around 2013, when a mysterious disease called “Sea Star Wasting Syndrome” was wiped out. 90 percent The main predator of the purple urchin, the sunflower sea star, in just a few weeks. The disease was present before that mass die-off, but researchers say its sudden spread was likely linked to warming of ocean temperatures and consequent low ocean oxygen levelsAs seawater warms, it no longer holds as much gas, including dissolved oxygen, which sea stars absorb directly through their skin to breathe.
Higher ocean temperatures also directly impair the ability of kelp strands to grow. Many kelp species love cold water and rely on the nutrients they contain to quickly regrow after natural shocks such as winter storms. Typically, that cold, deep water would rise to the surface each year, essentially bathing forests of kelp in natural fertilizer. But if the surface layer becomes too hot, the hot water acts as a cover that the deeper, more nutritious cold water cannot penetrate.
Around the same time that the number of sea stars began to decline, the West Coast purple urchin population experienced two excellent breeding years. Under normal conditions, purple urchins are mostly gentle scavengers, helping to clear the ocean floor of broken kelp and other debris. This changed when their numbers suddenly skyrocketed. Even though kelp normally grows rapidly, sea forests weakened by heat cannot keep pace with the appetite of purple urchins. Soon the Northern California kelp forests were being replaced by urchin barrens.
Unfortunately for commercial urchin divers like downies, purple urchins don’t have the same value as their red cousins, who compete for the same resources to thrive. As a result, California red urchin fisheries—as well as those associated with other kelp-dependent species, such as abalone—have been thrown into a sharp decline.
Fort Bragg, where Grant Downey and his father live, has been hit particularly hard. Once bustling with hundreds of red urchin divers and packers, the docks are all but empty.
Last year, when I traveled to a city of about 7,000 people, I met Jaime Pat, the only remaining employee of dozens of dockworkers processing newly caught red urchins. Everyone else left in search of work elsewhere, he told me. With little sign of pride, they showed off tall counters where the prized red urchin gonad would be scooped, arranged, and packed on ice to ship to sushi restaurants.
Downey has also lost a lot of work, but he can still be found Wrapped in thick neoprene and on the hunt. In addition to searching for precious red urchins (which he believes to be of reasonable depth), he also collects purs on occasion. But while red urchin uni is considered a delicacy, purple urchin does not have the same major market. However, this is not a problem for Downey, as his mission is not to sell the purses he collects for consumption.
have to destroy them.
last september, i Commercial divers aboard two small fishing vessels outside Fort Bragg—one belonging to the Downies, the other with large Trump 2020 flags. A non-profit organization called . is called reef check had reached an agreement with California’s Ocean Protection Council, which is part of the state’s Natural Resources Agency, for out-of-work red urchin divers to clear all purple sea urchins from a small section of the shallow seafloor. was hired.
The idea was to see if the kelp would grow again.
The boats had barely left port when each pair of divers were submerged, bags and buckets in hand, with the goal of filling the massive baskets at the end of the boats’ victory. Purps were so abundant in the allotted corner of the cove that some divers used rakes and hooks to catch them more efficiently than collecting them by hand. (One diver, who was not present that day, even prefers to use an underwater vacuum.) With those equipment, a pair of experienced fishermen over 1,000 pounds of purple urchins in a single afternoon. can bring I saw that the baskets of the day were filling fast, the spines of the offending creatures still waving in dull protest.
Back at the dock, Jaime Pat wins over from dive boats and into giant plastic boxes the size of Mini Coopers, mesh bags filled with urchins. Nearby, scientists counted and weighed a sample of each weight,…