Sustainably Harvesting Sea Urchins
Understanding the relationships between organisms and their environments is key when trying to understand ecosystem processes. All parts of the system affect the other parts, though the degree to which this occurs is variable. For example, a sudden proliferation of Jonah crabs could be associated with a decrease in the presence of predators, an increase in prey availability, increased habitat creation, more desirable environmental conditions, an increase in larval recruitment, or a host of other possibilities. Surely all of these factors do have a role in determining the population size, but sometimes one variable may contribute more significantly than the others, leading to various effects elsewhere in the ecosystem. This being said it is important to study ecosystem processes as a whole, and not solely as predator-prey interactions.
Though on the note of predator-prey interactions, there has been much interesting discussion surrounding the impact of human activity on urchin populations and the surrounding ecosystems. There are arguments both for and against humans strategically harvesting urchins in order to preserve kelp forests and subsequently biodiversity. Personally, I would consider trying to maintain the structure of such a dynamic system as an ecosystem to be a rather futile effort. I think it would be more efficient to work with the changes as opposed to fighting against them. For instance instead of trying to maintain a given species with regulatory control, using valuable time, labor, and resources (I used to work for NOAA’s Nation Marine Fisheries Service, and creating regulations is anything but simple), we could instead embrace the change in ecosystem equilibrium. We could harvest the new species that fills the niche of the previous species. I do of course agree there should be limits on harvesting practices, but more so limits of being reasonable rather than specific amounts of organisms that can be harvested that were determined based on data that very well may have changed by the time the regulation is put into effect and enforced. Abundant organisms and pest organisms could be gathered as food sources as opposed to solely harvesting a select few organisms because they have “market value”. Viable food sources of any sort should have market value if we want to truly practice sustainability and protect ecosystems. Just because lobster is delicious is no reason we can’t eat something else for a while. NOAA actually performs research to determine the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for a given organism. This is the maximum amount of an organism that can be harvested without harming the stock. This cannot possibly always take into account environmental factors, or unforeseen future factors that affect the populations. Instead of regulating harvesting with the idea in mind that we must harvest everything we can, we should harvest what we need as we need it, and if that is not available, move on to a different food organism. Harvesting with this narrow mindset was a major factor in the decline of many species already, so we need to do something to change that. There also needs to be much more cooperation between regulatory officials and scientists, as I learned from working with NOAA that there is an unacceptable lack of this oftentimes.
It would also be advisable to use more sustainable fishing tactics. For example, dredging can bring up large numbers of urchins, but it can also damage the urchins, so that even undesirables do not have the chance to live and reproduce. Dredging also damages habitat and affects many more species than just the target species. Dredging on a commercial scale is not sustainable, and it negatively affects much more than just urchins. If regulatory control becomes necessary, stricter regulations should be put on practices like this as opposed to penalizing free-divers and small-scale operations. The lack of concern for the environment that often coincides with commercial industry can truly damage our valuable ecosystems.