Researchers have urged the New South Wales government to support sea urchin harvesting along the South Coast as a way of boosting the economy and controlling the environmental pest.
- Marine scientists are urging the NSW government to consider investing in a commercial sea urchin industry
- Sea urchins can damage important kelp forests, impacting marine biodiversity
- Local traditional owners are being included in discussions about their waterways
Conservationists say while the sea urchin is native to NSW it is currently causing detrimental damage to healthy kelp forests and marine biodiversity.
Research Fellow John Keane from the University of Tasmania says NSW can learn from the practices currently used in Tasmania to mitigate the spread of sea urchins.
“They [urchins] were first reported in the 1980s and since then the population has boomed to the stage where we’ve got close to 20 million urchins now,” Dr Keane said.
“Hopefully the same thing can happen here in NSW.”
Are urchins bad?
Marine scientists met with traditional owners, government spokespeople, and conservationists at Narooma on Thursday to discuss ways to manage sea urchin populations and restore productive kelp forests.
Despite being a native species, overfishing and the impacts of climate change can cause a surge in the population of sea urchins.
When the population grows too large sea urchin barrens can form, which are often void of diverse life.
“Urchins can graze it [kelp forests] down to the dust,” said former director of the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, Peter Steinberg.
‘A seat at the table’
Traditional owners have also called for action to help restore the local marine environment, including Walbunja man Wally Stewart.
“They are a sea urchin barren.”
Mr Stewart says it is a milestone for traditional owners to finally have a seat at the table to discuss managing the waterways after 250 years.
“We were sitting at the same table talking about the same issue trying to work together to build something,” he said.
“That’s a milestone — a breakthrough for us straight away.”
Adriana Vergés from the Sydney Institute of Marine Science at the University of New South Wales also says a viable commercial urchin industry would greatly benefit regional economies while improving marine biodiversity.
“We’re talking thousands and thousands and thousands of urchins, so it takes a lot of time, but it can also create a lot of jobs,” Professor Vergés said.
This is an idea that Mr Stewart hopes will see employment boosted among the local Indigenous population.
“It could create work and employment as well but it’s also fixing up the environment again,” he said.
Regulatory changes needed
Professor Vergés says there are some regulations that make it challenging to establish a thriving sea urchin industry.
“There are regulatory issues that prevent the urchin fishery from getting bigger and kelp restoration to happen,” she said.
“One of the recommendations may be to change some of the permitting conditions to incentivise this kind of activity.”
Meanwhile, other solutions are being looked at like restoring damaged kelp forests and cultivating the seaweed.
In a statement, the Department of Primary Industries’ fisheries agency said it was already investing in research projects to address the issue.
“Three research projects are exploring how the reduction in the native urchin Centrostephanus may facilitate the restoration of kelp,” a spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, the state’s Minister for Agriculture declined to comment.