Sudden Death of Sea Urchins Threaten Red Sea Coral Reefs

The Red Sea’s vibrant coral reefs and marine life are a true underwater paradise. Despite the harmful impact of climate change, these reefs have proved remarkably resilient to rising sea temperatures. However, a new threat, the mysterious decline of a key species of sea urchins, now looms, sparking fears that this precious habitat will be overrun by fast-growing green algae. This could have devastating effects on tourism and the environment.

Researchers first noticed the deaths of black sea urchins near the southern city of Eilat earlier this year. These spiky creatures, with defensive spines up to 50cm long, are beloved by scuba divers and snorkelers who flock to the Gulf of Aqaba for its clear waters. “We know the pathogen hurts,” says Dr. Omri Bronstein. He explains that the disease paralyzes the sea urchins’ spines and tiny feet, causing visible signs of necrosis and rapid mortality. It’s likely that fish and human activities, including shipping, have contributed to the disease’s spread.

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The impact on the Red Sea’s ancient coral reefs, estimated to be over 5,000 years old, could be profound. Sea urchins are a vital part of the ecosystem, helping coral larvae to settle and grow while also eating algae to prevent it from blocking out sunlight and taking over. “Sea algae and corals are always competing for space,” explains Omri Omessi, a maritime inspector.

Without sea urchins, sea algae will spread much faster, potentially overtaking the coral. “Sea algae can grow way faster than corals,” warns Omessi. “Corals can grow an average of 1cm in a year, while sea algae can grow 1cm in a day!” Dr. Mahmoud Hanafy, a marine biologist at Suez Canal University, has been conducting his own studies further south along the Egyptian Red Sea coast and has discovered that the black sea urchin has disappeared from all the areas he surveyed from north of Hurghada to south of Marsa Alam. “I could not find a single specimen,” he says.

The decline of sea urchins is a concerning development that threatens the delicate balance of the Red Sea’s ecosystem. Without urgent action, the impact on one of the world’s most precious natural wonders could be catastrophic.

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