Blinkered, Indifferent or Inept : Sea urchins and the loss of opportunity
There is environmental carnage happening right now in the Eurobodalla and most, if not all residents, have no idea because it can't be seen and goes unreported. The culprit - sea urchins. An they are decimating our marine Parks, our Sanctuary zones and the length of our coastline devouring everything in their path.
And what are the government doing? Nothing at all from what we can gather. Let's look at the Tasmanian Government. They recognised sea urchins were causing untold damage to their waters and to their fisheries, impacting sea kelp, impacting abalone areas and impacting lobsters. They recognised that the urchins were a pest and they acted. The Tasmanian Government also recognised that there was an international market for urchin roe. It didn't take much to work out that if you stimulate an urchin roe industry it would not only bring a solution to the urchin problem but would also stimulate the economy and bring employment. In Tasmania sea urchin roe divers and producers are subsidised to the tune of $200,000 per year and their luxury product is now shipped to the four corners of the earth attracting luxury prices. In 2017/2018 there was a harvest of 186 tonnes with the A grade price of around $20/kg.
Urchins have become a major issue along the Australian coastline and waters warm. THIS VIDEO by 9NewsMelbourne shows the impact of urchins in Port Phillip Bay in Victoria So what of the massive environmental problem we have on our own doorstep and how is it being addressed?
VIDEO: This is a Centro Sea Urchin barren at Jimmy's Island in the Sanctuary Zone of the Batemans Marine Park. Notice the white bare rock where the Centro Sea Urchin has eaten the reef bare of all weed and kelp. The only weed left is in the wash zone where the Centro Sea Urchin can not get hold of, turning the reef into a desert. No fish, no lobsters or abalone can live here as the Centro Urchin has eaten their habitat and food. Throwing the bio diversity out of balance. Many in the Eurobodalla might be surprised to learn that a local business, Sea Urchin Harvest, owned by Chris and Rachel Theodore manufactures a quality sea urchin product that is enjoyed Australia wide and is on the cusp of being able to export world wide. Chris Theodore, has been diving the waters off the South East Coast of Australia ever since he was a little boy and has now been diving commercially for over 25 years.He comes from a large family of divers, who have been diving along this coastline since 1960. His father, Chris Snr, was a successful Abalone diver who introduced his three sons to diving at a very early age. Regarded as one of the best Sea Urchin divers in Australia his search spans between Ulludulla in NSW, to Mallacoota in Victoria where he spends at least five hours under water sourcing urchins typically averaging around 200kg of live Sea Urchins an hour. With the sea urchin roe processing plant located on his property at Tomakin in NSW, Chris is able to deliver his premium grade Sea Urchin Roe products around Australia the same day. But the Dark forces of bureaucracy are against him. With little in the way of any appreciation of the environmental role of urchin harvesting and with the fervour of "locking up" marine parks and sanctuary zones the government have played their own role in allowing the explosion of urchins along our coast line. The Tasmanian Government have recognised and now support their commercially viable sea urchin fisheries recognising them is valuable in the restoration of the kelp forest, and fish habitat. Locally Sea Urchin Harvest has been dedicated to the environment and sustainability since they launched in 2008 with a goal to restoring the local kelp forest and fish habitat (which has been lost to the Centrostephanus rodgersii urchin) via a commercially viable sea urchin fishery which has proven a great success. Sea Urchin Harvest has been recognised for its contribution to the environment by being awarded the Excellence in Environmental Practice at the 2017 Sydney Fish Market Excellence Awards.
Above: Chris and Rachel Theodore of Sea Urchin Harvest of Tomakin. However with the subsidies given by the Tasmanian Government to their urchin industry it is all but impossible for our own NSW urchin products to compete against prices that are near half. As a result the local and international supply contracts for NSW urchin roe suppliers are being hammered by Tasmanian providers ably supported by their government by means of research and subsidy. The process of harvesting and processing and distributing sea urchin roe is very labour intensive. The urchin harvesting industry provides many jobs to regional N.S.W. Environment: By carefully harvesting sea urchin by hand and only picking the best urchins for market, we are helping to restore local fish habitat.By picking the best urchin and leaving the rest to fatten we also improve productivity of the fishery and quality of the roe.And the consumer WINS, as they can enjoy great tasting sea urchin roe and know that they are helping create jobs and improve the local marine environment. So what is in the way of recognising that the NSW urchin industry has a direct role to play environmentally to the restoration of our reefs and the restoration of fish habitats whilst also providing employment and supporting an industry that has a massive export demand? In February 2019 Member for Bega Andrew Constance advised in a media release that the Department of Primary Industry (DPI) "will issue a research permit to access Sea Urchin barrens shortly. Due to the environmental impacts of sea urchin barrens, new research on environmental protection and restoration will commence in sections of the Marine Park in March." As stated the DPI "research team” did arrive and was sent to access Burri Point. When local commercial urchin divers Chris and Rachel Theodore met up with the team they found them attempting to launch a very old 20ft Stabbicraft that was broken down at the local boatramp with the team trying to repair it. Chris spoke to them and found them to be a very young team and not commercial divers. Rachel advised the Beagle "Chris asked how they were going to access Burri Point for sea urchins. They said they stick a camera out the back of the boat and drive around filming.That is the assessment. No local knowledge. First time they have been to the area. Zero knowledge on anything to do with urchin harvesting.Chris and I offered our commercially qualified divers to do the assessment, with no reply from DPI." In Nov 2018, the Theodores were invited by Andrew Constance and Minister for Primary Industries to attend the Regional Cabinet Meeting at Ulladulla, to discuss the current situation of urchin harvesting in NSW and the lack of government support .
Rachel has advised the Beagle that "At the meeting Minister Niall Blair came straight up to Chris and I. He spoke with understanding for our current situation. And he verbally gave us his support." Rachel described that discussed support as being:
1. Complete access to the Batemans Marine Park to open up new grounds to dive and to harvest the Centro sea urchin from all parts of the coastline.
2.Grants - this is to give financial assistance to help us in the time when the Tasmanian Liberal government have heavily distorted the local markets from subsides product
3. Giving our factory export approval to open new markets up to our business, to show case our premium seafood on a world stage, to create more jobs The Nature Coast Marine Group have welcomed discussion about the impact of high numbers of sea urchins on the marine environment. On their site they say however that "A disappointing development though is that we've had a report that some people are going out to Montague Island to kill urchins with garden tools and screwdrivers. This should not be happening, for various reasons: Any action HAS to be science-based if it is to have any useful impact;. Indiscriminate killing of any wildlife is wrong;. It's illegal to take more than 10 urchins;. "There are several species of urchin on the south coast, only one of which is creating barrens (photo below is of Heliocidaris, a non-problem genus). Uninformed action is dangerous."
Photo: Nature Coast Marine Group
"Urchin barrens are a big problem but any action to control them needs to be guided by science. Culling may be part of the response, though probably only in localised areas. It's a bit like the crown of thorns starfish problem." write the Nature Coast Marine Group In response to the above it was stated by a contributor that an environmental imbalance has to be recognised as is the case with the proliferation of the Crown of Thorns bought about by the removal of its predator, the Giant Triton. Research suggests that the spike in sea urchin numbers has come from the over fishing of the urchins predators such as wrasse and snapper. Predators, particularly wrasse, the Port Jackson Shark ,snapper and lobsters, each now greatly diminished in numbers, historically played a greater role in limiting sea urchin impacts. So where does that leave us. With a viable, environmentally sustainable industry that is wrapped in so much red tape, with Ministers making promises to then do nothing, with research barely begun and an employment opportunity that would bring the South Coast to the international stage with a quality product gone to waste. NSW Greens MLC and Healthy Oceans Spokesperson Justin Field said: "The Greens would get behind a plan to target urchins on the South Coast and deal with the problem caused by urchin barrens. "The urchins have left much of the rocky reefs in the Batemans Marine Park and neighbouring areas devoid of vegetation and life. It is not a suitable habitat for healthy marine biodiversity. "Any effort to remove the urchins has to be backed up with a plan to revegetate, restore habitat and protect biodiversity to encourage natural predators to return and thrive. "It might be suitable to look at commercial opportunities, including for indigenous fishing businesses, but the focus of any removal has to be restoring marine habitat and biodiversity to support the return of healthy reef systems. "The call to deal with urchins shouldn't be used as an argument against the value of the existing sanctuary areas. These areas need to be protected and restored to support the health of the broader Batemans Marine Park and surrounding marine environment." Greens Candidate for Bega, Will Douglas told the Beagle "as an evidence based party the Greens would have no problems with considering supports for an industry as it becomes part of the solution to the problem". Meanwhile we just lost a few more square metres of reef to plump, delectable and hungry urchins off shore.