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June 2022    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 48, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Caribbean Reefs Take a Further Battering

from the June, 2022 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Global warming has caused coral bleaching, nonendemic lionfish are eating all the indigenous fry, stony coral tissue loss disease is wiping out hard corals, and there are more frequent and more brutal hurricanes than before; the Caribbean reefs have endured some challenges in recent years, and a new one is happening quickly.

Sea urchins are dying across the Caribbean at a pace that rivals the mass die-off in 1983, alarming many who say this could further decimate the already battered coral reefs. You see, it's the herbivorous urchin population that helps keeps corals free of algae.

With a growing number of reports from the islands of St. Lucia and Dominica, to Saba and the U.S. Virgin Islands, then west to Cozumel, the worry is that the urchin die-off will mean that algae will engulf the reefs, leaving no space for young corals to attach. The reefs will not be able to regenerate themselves and will die. If you have dived the Bahamas or the Caribbean in the last decade, you probably have already seen some reefs covered in algae.

At first, only the black long-spined urchins were affected, but two other species have since been affected, including the rock boring sea urchin and the West Indian sea egg. Overfishing across the Caribbean already had led to a greater abundance of macroalgae, which was kept in check by sea urchins that are now dying.

The Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment, involving many organizations, recently helped create a network to investigate the deaths, analyze tissue samples, and find solutions to preventing a great die-off of urchins in 2022.

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