The disappearance of the long-spined sea urchin in the Florida Keys is akin to an ecological murder mystery, and The Florida Aquarium is tackling the case. The urchin began dying in the early 1980s, and now some estimates put the mortality rate at 97 percent. The Aquarium team’s primary goal is to undo the damage that has been done, even if they can’t pinpoint the culprit.
A 27-year-old University of Florida graduate student and former scuba diving instructor has been assigned the daunting task of developing a system to reproduce the endangered marine creature. The stakes are high. As Dr. Joshua Patterson, assistant professor of restoration at the University of Florida, recently explained, the urchin would “scrape a reef clean of algae. Now the reefs are being smothered by algae.”
Patterson, who oversees research by five UF graduate students at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation, recounted the progress of the urchin’s decline.
The long-spined sea urchin – Diadema antillarum – began dying from an unidentified disease at the mouth of the Panama Canal in the early 1980s, and the demise quickly spread throughout the Caribbean. The pathogen causing the die-off remains a mystery, but Patterson said the mortality pattern makes clear it came through the canal, though “we don’t know if it was transmitted by ballast water, free-flowing water, fish or parasite.”
The urchin’s decline has coincided with the decline of the Florida Keys’ coral reefs, though Patterson stresses that other factors, such as climate change and pollution, likely are involved in the reefs’ plight.
One study estimated Florida Keys have lost nearly half of its coral reefs, which are vital to a healthy ocean. Coral reefs cover about two percent of the ocean floor but provide habitat for at least 25 percent of marine life. So, addressing every factor harming the reefs, including the urchin loss, is vital.
While discovering the cause of the long-spined sea urchin die-off is important, even more critical is reviving its population. That will be the focus of UF graduate student Aaron Pilnick, who is intent on devising a system to “aquaculture” the urchins.
Pilnick, who was born in New York and moved to Orlando as a teen, said, “The overall goal is to figure out how to produce this species on a commercial scale in the laboratory so that experimental restoration of this species can occur.”
Pilnick has the background for the challenge. He started building fish tanks with his father and brother as a child and constructed his first reef tank when he was 12.
“I was always fascinated with the biology of the animals we would keep and learned as much as I could about how to cultivate proper environments for saltwater fish and corals,” he said.
This led him to learning the “technology of lighting and filtration.”
He began scuba diving as a teen and is equally devoted to the science of the deep. He once served as a scuba instructor in The Florida Keys.
Pilnick remains “stoked” about underwater exploration after more than 500 dives.
He also is stoked about working with The Florida Aquarium on saving the long-spined sea urchin. He calls them “biological lawnmowers” because by consuming algae, they create space for corals to grow and for coral larvae to attach themselves to the reef.
Pilnick received his undergraduate degree in biology and environment studies from Tufts University. After graduating, he interned at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, studying fisheries for nearly a year and next interned at a coral reef ecology laboratory at the New England Aquarium in Boston. He is accustomed to the rigors of research.
He currently is working on his master’s in interdisciplinary ecology at the University of Florida and feels fortunate to have the opportunity to work at The Florida Aquarium’s new Center for Conservation.
The Center is under development on Tampa Electric Co. property in Apollo Beach. But the campus already includes two “arks,” (coral greenhouses) where endangered corals are grown to reintroduce into the wild. The goal is to build six more arks. The ark and research facilities are funded by Aquarium revenue from ticket sales and by generous donations.
When completed, the Center will include a sea turtle hospital, including a deep dive testing tank, and a shark and ray research station. The facility already has a room available for the urchin project. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission operates a youth education center on the campus.
“It is amazing to see the investment being made in people and facilities” to pursue “coral reef restoration,” Pilnick said. The support from TECO and partnerships between “The Florida Aquarium, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the University of Florida are inspiring to say the least.”
Patterson, who will manage Pilnick’s work, credits The Florida Aquarium for pursuing the formidable Diadema antillarum challenge. In addition to providing the research facility, equipment and assistance, The Florida Aquarium helps to fund Pilnick's salary.
Both Patterson and Pilnick praise the foundational work of Martin (Skip) Moe, the marine biologist who pioneered fisheries restoration and experimented with Diadema aquaculture for more than 10 years in the garage of his Florida Keys home.
Patterson is hopeful, but realistic. He pointed out that even if “we figure out how to grow them, that doesn’t mean we are going to be able to restock them.”
He said the urchin was once so plentiful that divers complained if they didn’t pay attention they would get stuck by the urchin’s spine, which has a mild toxin.
If Pilnick, Patterson and The Florida Aquarium team are successful, Florida Keys divers may once again have to worry again about being spiked by urchins. But that would be a small price to pay for rescuing our endangered coral reef ecosystems.
Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune