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Marine biologists warn that a mass mystery death of sea urchins is threatening the Red Sea’s coral reefs – in a Red Sea resort that borders Jordan and Egypt.
As sea urchins feed on algae that may suffocate corals, their deaths could potentially “destroy our entire coral reef ecosystem,” said scientist Lisa-Maria Schmidt to AFP.
Schmidt recounted the moment she and her colleagues first saw the population decline and collapse. “When we jumped into the water, all of a sudden, all those specimens we used to see before were gone, and what we saw was skeletons and piles of spines.”
The team had first heard reports in January that a sea urchin species in Israel’s resort of Eliat was dying rapidly. With this news, they went to a site known for an abundance of the species Diadema setosum and had originally credited the source of blame to the local population. However, after two weeks in the sea, urchins also showed to be dying along the south coast of the Red Sea.
In their investigation, two sea urchin species were affected, Diadema setosum and Echinothrix calamaris.
Sea urchins in the Caribbean saw a similar mass death with the Diadema antillarum species in the 1980s, raising questions about the possibility of disease in the Red Sea caused by ships, whose ballast water can carry pathogens and exotic species.
“I think it’s especially scary for that region, especially in the Red Sea. Those corals are known to be quite resilient, and I think people have placed a lot of hope in those reefs,” said Mya Breitbart, a biologist from the University of South Florida, to AFP.
Within months, she and scientists working across the Caribbean had pinpointed a pathogen, giving hope that the cause of the Red Sea threat could be found.
Bronstein said that this is something that can be fixed. “It is probably in one harbor and one of the ships currently sailing our oceans.”