Sea urchin harvest could limit spread of ‘barrens’

PEST OR POTENTIAL: An urchin barren off Montague Island. Conservationists and divers are concerned at the number of urchins on the Far South Coast. The NSW Department of Primary Industries say urchins are not a pest. Photo by Bill Barker
PEST OR POTENTIAL: An urchin barren off Montague Island. Conservationists and divers are concerned at the number of urchins on the Far South Coast. The NSW Department of Primary Industries say urchins are not a pest. Photo by Bill Barker

Threat to marine biodiversity – or potential economic boon? 

Sea urchins are the greatest threat to Far South Coast coastal biodiversity and are creating vast wastelands on offshore reefs, largely devoid of life, divers say. 

Conservationists and abalone divers are joining forces to raise awareness of the hidden problem they say could wipe out life on reefs from Sydney to the Victorian border.  Click here for previous story

But sea urchin divers Chris and Rachael Theodore based at Tomakin believe Australia has untapped potential for commercial sea urchin production, which would reduce the large populations of urchins causing concern to conservationists and abalone divers.

“We’re such an infant industry, there’s only two of us in Australia,” Mrs Theodore said. “It’s quite large overseas, in California and Japan, and Australia has that potential.”

However, marine parks and habitat protection zones reduce the harvest.

“From Malua Bay to Burri point at Jimmy’s Island is closed to sea urchin fishing, so they’ve got a habitat protection zone for a pest,” Mr Theodore said. “(The urchins) are in massive numbers, and they won’t open it, even though there’s a marine park right next door, which you’re not allowed to fish in either.”

The Theodores say the limited areas open to divers create a safety risk.

“The second a strong southerly comes up, there’s nowhere to hide that’s safe,” Mr Theodore said. “The boat can get rolled over, I can get cut off diving, so it makes it really dangerous.”

This also impacts the Theodores’ employees.

“For example, this week our employees have no work because it’s too dangerous, there’s no safe lees for the divers to go to,” Mrs Theodore said. “It’s very frustrating.”

The Theodores see potential for the sea urchin industry to grow employment.

“It’s easy work for young people straight out of school,” Mr Theodore said. “We employ a lot of people that have been unemployed and kids straight out of school, who don’t have any work experience, and mothers who need more flexibility.

“It does vary because it’s so seasonal, but there’s a flow on from our freight guys down to the shops in Sydney and Melbourne.”

The Theodores say the government would have a more sustainable impact by funding urchin businesses, rather than environmental culls.

“They’re focusing money on culls, which doesn’t seem to provide much employment, but they don’t seem to want to back us or help us in any way,” Mr Theodore said.

“We’ve been harvesting for the last seven years, pulling 30 to 60 tonne of urchins each year.

“It’s ongoing and it’s creating jobs. Culls have their place, but they don’t create anything.”

The NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) denies that sea urchins are a pest on the Far South Coast, and say they are monitoring urchin numbers in marine sanctuaries.

“There are no known pest sea urchins present in NSW waters, however there are many common native sea urchins along the NSW coast,” a spokesman said.

“Sea urchins are known to have increases in population size at certain times of the year and while it is largely unknown as to why this occurs, it may be in response to changes in water quality, food and habitat availability.

“The presence of urchin barrens in NSW is considered to be due to the reduction in the abundance of key urchin predators, however this is considered a natural process and not considered as a significant risk to the NSW marine estate. 

“The DPI is undertaking monitoring work inside and outside of marine park sanctuary zones to further assess their impacts.”

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