A series of new, disturbing studies from Tel Aviv University reveal a deadly epidemic is causing mass mortality of black sea urchins in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Eilat.
The entire population of black sea urchins in Eilat was wiped out over a couple of months, researchers warned Wednesday.
For example, thousands of sea urchins living in a site near the northern shore of the Gulf of Eilat died out over the course of a few weeks.
The epidemic was so severe, that today no living black sea urchins have remained at the site, only skeletons. The same has happened at other sites in the Gulf of Eilat. The studies note that such extensive mortality is also occurring in other countries in the region, including Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Greece, and Turkey.
The researchers emphasize that sea urchins in general, and the long-spined Diadema setosum in particular, are considered key species essential for the healthy functioning of the coral reef.
“It must be understood that the threat to coral reefs is already at an all-time peak, and now a previously unknown variable has been added,” the researchers said. “This situation is unprecedented in the entire documented history of the Gulf of Eilat.”
“At first we thought it was some kind of pollution or poisoning, or a local chemical spill, from the industry and hotels in the north of the Gulf of Eilat, but when we examined additional sites in Eilat, Jordan, and Sinai, we quickly realized that this was not a local incident,” Dr. Bronstein said.
“All findings pointed to a rapidly spreading epidemic. Similar reports are coming in from colleagues in Saudi Arabia. Even sea urchins that we grow for research purposes in our aquariums at the Interuniversity Institute, and sea urchins at the Underwater Observatory Marine Park in Eilat, contracted the disease and died, probably because the pathogen got in through the pumping systems.”
“It’s a fast and violent death: within just two days a healthy sea urchin becomes a skeleton with massive tissue loss. While some corpses are washed ashore, most sea urchins are devoured while they are dying and unable to defend themselves, which could speed up contagion by the fish who prey on them.”