Moving out the urchins

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Hardy souls relocate 6,000 off seagrass beds


To say the relocation of sea urchins event this spring was successful is an understatement in some ways.
The weather could have cooperated and helped bring more people out to St. Joseph Bay to gather the urchins. As it was, almost 6,000 sea urchins were recently relocated from St. Joseph Bay to deeper water.
What an accomplishment! Sounds easy enough – get in your boat, register, find the sea urchins, return to registration station, turn your urchins in, get your Thank You for your efforts. The trouble was the wind the day of the round-up on May 22. The weather certainly did not cooperate that day. Thank goodness there were approximately 40 hardy souls willing to brave the wind and bad weather to find these sea urchins.
The sea urchins were relocated from shallow seagrass beds to deeper water, a trip just one-half mile away from their original location. Remember what they say about land property – location, location, location. We can apply that to the sea urchins in the bay. Their location in regard to the seagrass is important to the survival of the bay scallops and other bay marine life.
Why move these urchins at all, and, why such a short distance? The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Research Institute expect the seagrass beds to grow and expand without the sea urchins grazing pressure this summer.
One boater bringing in a mesh bag full of urchins asked, “Did we make a dent in the urchin population? Research scientist, Dr. Paul Carlson replied, “yes and no.”
The answer was given in two parts. First, there was no impact whatsoever on the total number of sea urchins in St. Joseph Bay. However, surveys done after the event did show that volunteers were successful in reducing the number of sea urchins within the study area - from an average of five urchins per square meter to one or less per square meter in the “picked” patches.
Over the summer and continuing through fall, seagrass growth will be monitored in the “picked” patches and a comparison will be made to seagrass growth in the patches that did not have urchins removed.
“We are very optimistic that periodic urchin relocation from these isolated seagrass patches will allow them to recover and spread,” said Dr. Paul Carlson, research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, of the effect of the round-up,
Over time the natural recovery of seagrass in the bay will help improve the scallop harvest numbers as well.
To reiterate the reason for relocating the urchins – they eat the turtle grass and manatee grass which the scallops and other marine life need to grow. Sea urchins disturb the seagrasses which support different kinds of marine life, especially the tasty Calico Bay scallops.
The increase in urchin populations has created a problem for those enjoying St. Joseph Bay. Don’t jump off a boat in the bay barefooted in certain areas or it will hurt. Old-timers do not remember so many urchins in the bay in many years. The boom started around 2013 and is getting worse each year.
When conditions are perfect in the bay and in balance, the seagrass grows faster than urchins can eat their leaves. About 1,500 acres of prime head of the bay “real estate” has been affected by the burst of sea urchins in the past years.
Carlson is hopeful the efforts of he and his crew will be successful. “We are anxious to sponsor another roundup in the near future,” he said. “We will let everyone know in time to plan to help us. It was amazing at how interested people were in helping save the scallops in St. Joseph Bay.”
If you missed the last event don’t worry, you can still participate in September. With the first event proving to be a great success under less than perfect conditions, it is hopeful September’s event will help the bay and hence the scallop (and other marine life) populations.
Watch for notices about the next event or call 850-229-1787 for information about the September event. Most likely scallop season will be over, and a lot of people can devote time to “picking” and gathering a lot of urchins. Helping St. Joseph Bay has seen volunteers out in force in the past. Apparently, it is still a popular pastime.
Thanks to those helping with the first round-up and to those planning to help with the second one in September.

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