© 2022 All Rights reserved WUSF
News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Environment

The Florida Aquarium spawns and releases sea urchins in an effort to save Florida's coral reefs

close-up of sea urchin
The Florida Aquarium
/
The Florida Aquarium has released nearly 200 long-spined sea urchins near the Florida Keys that were spawned in its lab.

Around 200 sea urchins were spawned at the aquarium and released in a coral reef off the Florida Keys, where they will eat algae that can overrun the reef.

The Florida Aquarium has been working with researchers with the University of Florida to spawn sea urchins in its lab with the idea of releasing them in an effort to help restore Florida's dying coral reefs.

On Wednesday, aquarium officials announced the release of nearly 200 long-spined sea urchins near the Florida Keys.

According to a news release, researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWC) began collecting adult urchins in the Florida Keys and transporting them to the aquarium, where researchers spawned the urchins for almost eight months and collected the fertilized eggs.

Juvenile urchins in a tank
The Florida Aquarium
/
Scientists collected around 400,000 fertilized eggs that were allowed to grow and then placed into containers that enabled them to constantly float in water while continuing to develop.

It is considered the largest effort to re-stock the urchin population in the last 20 years, according to the release.

“With their long black spines, these urchins are instantly recognizable as one of the most striking creatures in the Atlantic Ocean,” aquarium biologist Alex Petrosino said in the release. “What is less commonly known is these urchins provide a vital service, living out their lives, eagerly scouring over the reef surface and feeding on the fleshy algae that is fueled by pollution and can suffocate healthy coral reefs.”

Scientists tending to urchins in a tank
The Florida Aquarium
/
The urchins were moved into larger tanks and raised for another 6 1/2 months before their release.

The urchins had largely been wiped out by disease and disappeared from Florida's coral reefs in the 1980s. That has had a devastating effect on the coral, which rely on urchins to eat algae that can overrun the reefs.

This has resulted in coral reefs dying off across the globe — including Florida's coral reef, which runs from the Dry Tortugas west of the Florida Keys to north of Palm Beach.

According to the release, each adult urchins can produce millions of eggs and sperm in each spawning event.

Scientists collected around 400,000 fertilized eggs that were allowed to grow and then placed into containers that enabled them to constantly float in water while continuing to develop.

After about 35 days, they were taken out of those containers and moved into larger tanks for another 6 1/2 months before being released into the waters near Florida Keys.

“We are in a race to help the world’s coral reefs, and this release of critically important algae grazers is a huge step forward” said Keri O'Neil, aquarium manager and senior scientist for the Coral Conservation Program, said in the release. “I am immensely proud of our team, and our partner institutions, who came together to find healthy and supportive methods to foster hundreds of urchins and release them into the wild.”

Divers from the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will monitor the sites, to see how the urchins are doing.

WLRN reporter Nancy Klingener contributed to this report.

Sea urchin on coral under the water
The Florida Aquarium
/
The urchins had largely been wiped out by disease and disappeared from Florida's coral reefs in the 1980s. That has had a devastating effect on the coral, which rely on urchins to eat algae that can overrun the reefs.