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Sea Urchin Pandemic Spreads Beyond Red Sea Endangering Coral Reefs

Posted to Maritime Reporter on June 10, 2024

Scientists in Israel claim that the sea-borne virus which decimated sea urchin populations at the Red Sea is now destroying the species throughout the Indian Ocean.

The sea urchin species that was impacted is well known as a protector of coral reefs, and its deaths have put the fragile ecosystem of the reef in further danger.

Researchers say that they identified the pathogen responsible for the pandemic through a molecular study. The first signs of the disease were noticed in the Gulf of Aqaba about a year prior. Researchers are pointing to mass deaths in the Red Sea and Arabian Peninsula, as well as Reunion Island, off Madagascar.

It is difficult to estimate how many people are dying because the pathogen is so violent and fast. In just two days, colonies can disappear, according to Omri Bronstin, a Tel Aviv University zoologist and Steinhardt Museum of Natural History zoologist.

The coral triangle, which extends from southeast Asia to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, is heading east.

He said, "I am afraid that the current trajectory is this. This is where we are going."

The journal Current Biology published their findings.

'LAWN MOWERS'

Bronstein described affected sea urchins as "lawnmowers" of coral reefs since they remove the algae that would otherwise block sunlight and allow the coral to flourish.

Bronstein and his team have already observed a significant increase in the algae cover.

He said: "When the deaths began in the Red Sea they were so sudden, so violent, and so intense that our first thought was this must be some sort of pollution or something extremely severe, but local."

A ferry docked in Aqaba at a wharf further south, where the same phenomenon was observed. It spread 70 kms (44miles) more two weeks later. The scientists described the thousands of skeletons that were once dominant species, rolling on the ocean floor.

Bronstein stated that there is no known cure for the disease. Bronstein said that there was still the chance of creating an isolated population or broodstock (of sea urchins) remaining elsewhere, which could be reintroduced in the future.

Now, the Israeli team is working with scientists from across the region in order to map out the pandemic. The samples will show the interaction between sea life and the environment.

Bronstein stated, "You need to have someone on the ground who can provide you with information because in 48 hours there will be no proof that any deaths have occurred." This coordination and collaboration is key to being on top of a rapidly changing situation. (Reporting and editing by Emelia Sithole Matarise; Ari Rabinovitch)