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UF/IFAS Led Study Shows Promise Using Sea Urchins to Aid Coral Reef Restoration


Fort Pierce - Tuesday March 28, 2023: The results of a new collaborative study show promise in urchin restocking strategies to aid coral reef restoration.

On and off over the past four decades, scientists have tried a handful of times to restore sea urchins on coral reefs because they eat harmful algae that otherwise smother the ecosystems.

In this latest effort, researchers collected sea urchins from a broad area in south Florida. Staff and volunteers gathered the spiny urchins by hand and relocated them to the restoration site on Rainbow Reef off Key Biscayne. The results indicate that urchin restoration may be a viable method of helping coral reefs recover and thrive.

The study was conducted by marine scientists from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) in Fort Pierce, the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science and the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science (Frost Science), which initiated the effort with partial funding provided by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“Once considered a nuisance, these formerly dominant urchins are now one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for restoring reefs, following decades of destruction,” said Aaron Pilnick, who led the research for his doctoral dissertation in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

“While we need to confirm these results in different regions, we feel optimistic about the potential benefits to Florida’s Coral Reef and the greater Caribbean,” said Pilnick. “The goal is to populate reefs with Diadema (the scientific name for these urchins) and figure out how to get them to stick around long enough to start eating algae.”

In previous studies almost all of the urchins either died or moved within weeks. However in this case researchers found that more than half the urchins remained on the reef after three months. Nearly one-fourth remained on the reef nine months later. Even one-fourth remaining is significant, and results of this study showed these urchins successfully removed harmful algae from the study area.

“The survival rate is ... important because these sea urchins need high densities to successfully breed, which helps reefs thrive,” said Lad Akins, curator of marine conservation at Frost Science.

“We also learned how these urchins were moving around in different habitat, which will help us develop future strategies to get them to stay in place,” said Pilnick, now a researcher at the UF/IFAS School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences (SFFGS) at the Florida Aquarium Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach.

Among the volunteers who help in the experiment were Air Force veteran and Force Blue team member Jay Casello, and NFL wide receiver Mack Hollins. Both are trained scuba divers.

Casello and Hollins dove into the waters off Key Biscayne to relocate the urchins along with the marine the scientists. Over the next nine months of the study both of them continued to monitor the progress by conducting multiple dives on Rainbow Reef to count the relocated urchins and monitor reef activity.

The University of Miami and Frost Science are official partners with Force Blue in 100 Yards of Hope, a coral reef restoration project that started in 2021 honoring what was then the NFL’s 100th season and also honoring America’s military veterans.