Are Purple Sea Urchins Viruses in the Ocean? Why You Should Be Eating More Uni

By Eric MuellerLast Updated Apr 8, 2021 12:02:48 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Bob Chamberlin/Getty Images

The strongylocentrotus purpuratus, also known as the purple sea urchin, is a controversial face in the sea at this moment in time. Believe it or not, the issue stems back to climate change, a problem with a lot of different symptoms. And purple sea urchins may be acting like a virus right now.

The problem on the ocean floor affects more than the ecology of oceans. The foods most of us eat and products most of us use are affected as well. How we deal with this issue in particular goes beyond the typical ways we often combat global warming. Instead of recycling or reducing your carbon footprint, this is an instance where changing your diet can literally help save the world.

What’s Going on in Bodega Bay?

As a part of their "Climate in Crisis" series, NBC Bay Area recently reported on the rapid influx of purple sea urchins dwelling on the ocean floor, especially in Bodega Bay. Reporter Joe Rosato Jr. likened what has been going on to a horror movie, and goes as far as calling purple sea urchins "the bullies of the ocean." Were they being melodramatic?

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Photo courtesy: REDA&CO/Getty images

Basically, starfish populations are declining and, as a result, purple sea urchin populations are going unchecked. The purple sea urchin does not have many natural predators. Think about it: would you want to eat a raw sea urchin whilst on the ocean floor?

It’s hard to imagine a starfish eating a sea urchin, but the process is a mixture of fascinating and terrifying to watch. Higher water temperatures and the overwhelming presence of humans is believed to be the cause of the starfish’s disappearance. And it’s having quite the ripple effect in the ocean.

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The Biology of Purple Sea Urchins

The strongylocentrotus purpuratus, purple sea urchin, has a lifespan of about 20 years. With sea urchin populations going unchecked by natural predators, two decades is a long time to be eating kelp and algae off the ocean floor.

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Photo Courtesy: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Purple sea urchins are able to move rather than float along with little tube feet that come out of their lower area, near their mouths. They use hundreds of these feet to attach themselves to rocks and other parts of the ocean floor and slowly propel themselves around the seabed. It’s nice to know that sea urchins have the means to move themselves out of the kelp forests they are devastating, but their choosing not to move means people need to intervene.

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As a species, they tend to be both social and independent. Some of them live alone while others live in massive colonies, kind of like people. When born, the urchins are a pale green color, but the purple starts developing in their first year. Their shape is radially symmetrical, meaning that they are more like a tulip than something bilaterally symmetrical, like a piece of paper folded in half.

When it comes to their size, purple sea urchins can range from about 50mm to sometimes 100mm in diameter. That’s about two to four inches, if you aren’t familiar with the metric system. A thousand of them would cover 100 square feet. That might not seem like much space, but when there are thousands upon thousands of these spiked creatures and only a finite amount of kelp under the sea, it equates to a lot, especially if these populations are going unchecked.

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The Importance of Kelp: Why Should We Care?

It turns out that kelp is one of those tiny things that has a massive impact on human and animal life. Kelp might be at the bottom of the food chain, but that just means that it is severely missed when not readily available. Consider kelp to be the bottom of a tower in Jenga.

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Photo Courtesy: Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images

Purple sea urchins are not the only residents of kelp forests nor are they the only species that eat kelp. Many species of fish and invertebrates consume kelp. Residents of kelp forests include bristle worms, anemone, starfish, scud, prawns, snails, crabs, and jellyfish. That’s a packed house.

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Aside from kelp’s habitat being a source of life and refuge for so many creatures, scientists fear that less kelp means less Blue Carbon. While blue carbon might sound like a really cool music album or energy drink, it’s quite important. It’s a lot like why we need trees. Kelp and trees both take in carbon and emit oxygen, the opposite of people, so kelp forests are like the trees of the ocean, and scientists look to kelp to help keep us safe from climate disasters.

As if kelp’s residential qualities and carbon-helping qualities weren’t enough, kelp is actually used in a lot of household products. Fisheries are able to harvest blades from kelp farms called algin. Algin is a stabilizer, a material that can be used in plastics and thickening foods such as pudding and gravy. Who knew that kelp and purple sea urchins had an impact on Christmas and Thanksgiving food staples as well as skincare regimens!

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Algin can also be used in vegan skincare products, throat lozenges, flame-resistant clothing, and soft serve ice cream. There is no doubt that purple sea urchins and kelp have an impact on our day-to-day lives. They might be taken for granted, but In the cases of flame-resistant clothing and ice cream, it’s clear that kelp’s influence can affect our survival.

How Can We Help?

Violence is rarely the answer, but hunting and fishing as a means to control population is a practice that dates back to Indigenous cultures across the globe. This is one of the few instances where the appetite and consumption of people can come in handy and maybe even save the world.

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Photo Courtesy: Geography Photos/Getty Images

The answer may very well be "uni," a popular dish at sushi restaurants that is considered a delicacy. Inside sea urchins, there are five orangish strips that are actually sex organs and their buttery taste is sought after all over the planet. Uni can be a little pricey, sometimes twenty dollars and up for a small plate, but if the demand for uni increased across different cultures, this could ramp up efforts to get a better supply, which might bring down the cost to a more accessible price range.

Uni has many health benefits. According to Umami Insider, the dish is high in protein and fiber, low in carbs and calories, and great for blood circulation. That’s something for everyone! If uni is out of your price range or not your cup of tea, there is always the option to reduce your meat consumption. Try adopting the practice of a Meatless Monday or consider going one day a week without buying or consuming meat in any way.

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Oceans may already have lost 90% of bull kelp, so the time to act is now. Order that uni and create the demand that hopefully will lead to a sustainable fishing of purple sea urchins. There are currently no conservation efforts for purple sea urchins, meaning scientists aren’t worried about the preservation of the species like they are when a species becomes endangered. What can’t happen, however, is a repeat of the passenger pigeon, who was basically hunted to extinction by humans.

A more normal tomorrow might mean more fish on your plate, but it’s important to make sure that said plate isn’t overloaded. The old saying, "save some for the fish," rings true in more ways than one.

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