Massive release of 1,200 sea urchins planned

Hatchery-raised sea urchins to combat invasive seaweed

 UPDATED 7:41 AM HST Jan 29, 2011
Sea Urchin
HONOLULU -

A joint project between the state division of Aquatic Resources, the Nature Conservatory and the University of Hawaii to restore the natural reef in Kaneohe is underway.

On Saturday a canoe club will help scientists transport trays of hatchery raised native sea urchins out into the wild.

?This is the first time we have been able to raise urchins in captivity very few places in the world ever do this,? said Christy Martin with the Coordinating Group on Alien Species.

The major undertaking has been the result of years of research work by many people.

The urchins have been raised in a hatchery at the Anuenue fisheries research at Sand Island. The hope is the urchins will keep the invasive seaweed population in check.

The aggressive seaweed has been a growing problem for the fragile reef ecosystem in the bay.

?It takes over. It smothers the reef. It blocks out the light and takes up space for other things to grow,? said state aquatics resource scientist David Cohen.

Scientists have been collecting adult specimens from the wild and using their sperm and eggs to propagate the microscopic creatures.

Cohen has been nurturing them in the hatchery.

It has been a lot of trial and error. It is labor intensive too, having to transfer the urchins from tank to tank over time.

Cohen calls them his babies, and just like any young living thing, they need a lot of the right kind of food.

?We give them as much variety as we can. We use native seaweeds and we fatten them up until they can get out on the reefs and do their jobs,? said Cohen.

It?s all about bio-controls and while some may worry about the area being overrun with urchins, Cohen says with monitoring, he doesn?t think that will happen.

?We can actually herd these guys like cows and goats. We keep them where we want them and if they migrate to another area, we pick them up and move them elsewhere,? Cohen said.

The urchin release will happen in water 2-6 feet deep, and while the spines look sinister and needle sharp, they surprisingly are not very pokey.

Cohen said if you happen to step on them, you are more likely to hurt the urchin than to get hurt yourself.

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