Purple sea urchins are disrupting marine life on the west coast by devouring kelp forests that are important to Pacific Ocean ecosystems.
The Associated Press reported that 350 million urchins were recently counted on one Oregon reef, a more than 10,000 percent increase since 2018. The news outlet also reported that the urchins have eaten 90 percent of giant bull kelp forests in Northern California.
The AP reported that "urchin barrens," or areas with nothing but the creatures, have spread to Oregon and are damaging fisheries for red abalone and red sea urchins.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” Scott Groth, a scientists with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the wire service. “You can’t just go out and smash them. There’s too many. I don’t know what we can do.”
The news outlet also noted that rising temperatures in the Pacific Ocean have presented a challenge for kelp. Large numbers of starfish, which prey on purple urchins, were also killed by a disease starting in 2013.
The urchins reportedly have also had good breeding years and are not as susceptible to starvation from the kelp shortage because they can become dormant and live for years without food.
Scientists are unsure whether climate change has played a role in the population boom, but believe it played a role in the events leading up to it.
The AP noted that the urchin infestation will also have economic effects, citing the closure of California's red abalone fishery, which contributed $44 million into the coastal economy annually.
One solution being considered is paying divers to gather the purple sea urchins and bring them to ranches where they will be fattened to sell as seafood.