Urchin Clean-up

  • Aqua Tutus Diving Club at the Purple Urchin Removal Event

Divers make a day of it: urchin clean-up addresses kelp, ab die-off

By Michelle Blackwell, Correspondent (originally published in the Mendocino Beacon)

An instant city materialized at Ocean Cove in Sonoma County over Memorial Day Weekend and most of the residents were sport divers. The Watermen’s Alliance organized the first urchin clean-up to help the kelp and abalone. On Saturday at 11 a.m., there were 79 registered divers, and more were coming in.

The clean-up spanned Saturday and Sunday. Divers from Mendocino, Sonoma, the Bay Area and farther afield descended on the cove, each with a goal to collect as many purple urchins as they could. The effort was preceded by a Reef Check survey of the area. Reef Check will be going back after the clean-up to gauge its efficacy.

“We’ve been pressing the state to increase the purple urchin limit for four years,” said Josh Russo, president of the Watermen’s Alliance. “Most of these divers are doing this to save the abalone season.”

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife was on hand for the clean-up. They were monitoring the health and conditions of sample urchins.

According to CDFW, the partnership created with Watermen’s Alliance and a consortium of stakeholders in the Kelp Ecosystem and Landscape Partnership for Research and Resilience (KELPRR) is to support broad scale kelp recovery.

Abalone depend on kelp as their food source. Purple urchins have over-populated the waters off Sonoma and Mendocino and destroyed the kelp beds.

But the weekend was a reunion of sorts for a multitude of dive groups and support volunteers. The Alameda County Sheriff Dive Team was on hand offering free tank refills.

Team member Kenneth Fraga said, “It was an opportunity to lend support and recruit divers to join our volunteer group.”

The list of dive groups included the Sonoma County Abalone Network, AQUATUTUS, NorCal Skin Divers, NorCAl Underwater Hunters, Monterey Bay Tritons and individual divers.

The NorCal Kayak Hunters were supporting divers by ferrying in their bags of urchins, so they could stay in the field longer. The surf was choppy, the water was about 53 degrees and a cool wind blew. There were rescue boats on the water and the Sheriff’s Office flew a helicopter overhead just in case.

The purple urchin take limit was changed from 35 urchins to 20 gallons per diver in April 2018. According to Cynthia Catton, a State Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist, “Each diver can fill four five-gallon buckets.”

The urchins range in size so to weigh them they were smashed, and each diver was given a total weight by inches.

When asked why they don’t just smash them in the water, Catton explained, “Smashing them underwater could inadvertently spawn the urchins and the additional food source could change the behavior of fish in the area. It’s something that can be done in a controlled setting but not appropriate for this type of clean-up.”

According to Russo, “The crushing study was done in a controlled lab setting and he did not believe it applied to open water conditions.”

Russo has raised $100,000 to date to help the kelp, ($55,000 from divers and $45,000 in grants).

“I expect to raise more this weekend,” he said.

The money is used to fund commercial divers to collect purple urchins in deeper waters offshore.

“I am running seven boats split between of Noyo, Caspar, Albion and Sonoma,” said Russo.

He works fulltime as a drafting engineer but has taken time off work to organize the response to the kelp and abalone crisis. The abalone season was shut down in 2018.

According to Fish and Wildlife, over 90 percent of the kelp has been lost off the Northern California coast since 2014 while the purple urchin population has increased by 60 percent since 2015.

Doug Jung, a diver from Sonoma County, has been diving for 50 years.

“For five years this crisis was coming, and they did nothing,” he said, referring to the state.

Jung lost his house in the 2017 fires but came out to clean up urchin. “This is more important,” he said.

Tim Selle and Carlos Solorzano, divers from the Bay Area, said, it took an hour and 15 minutes to collect one bag, which about a fourth of the allowed take. “They are everywhere,” Selle said, referring to the urchins.

But Selle did not have the energy to go back out. The conditions for diving were difficult. Other divers reported they saw very few of the desired black urchins and only two abalone in their dives, reinforcing the need for removing purple urchins.

Even divers who were grounded due to medical reasons came out to watch. A Santa Rosa resident said, “I had to come out and see it, even though I just had knee surgery. I plan to make one of the clean-ups when I recover.”

Another diver was unable to dive for two months due to vertigo but was counting the days until she could get back in the water. Several youth divers were in the water collecting urchins as well.

While dozens supported the dive, others were supporting the post dive feed and fundraising. Many divers mentioned they were looking forward to barbecued abalone farmed in Cayucos, California.

Erin McBride donated the farmed abalone. McBride also plans a farmed abalone cook-off in Noyo Harbor, in August to raise additional funds for Watermen’s.

Paul Brand ,who organizes the Big X Randy Fry Fish Cookoff every October in Manchester, is also raising money for the effort.

By the end of the day Sunday, May 27, there were 100 divers, who collected 2,200 gallons of purple urchins, which will be used as compost, and raised $13,200 additional funds for commercial diver clean-ups.

Russo is scheduling additional urchin clean-ups along the Sonoma and Mendocino coast this diving season.

For more information about Watermen’s Alliance, go to watermensalliance.com. For information about KELPRR, go to the Noyo Center for Marine Science website, noyocenter.org/help-the-kelp.

To participate in the abalone cookoff, go to visitmendocino.com/event/2018-abalone-cookoff. The Big X Randy Fry event is scheduled for Oct. 20. The NorCal Skin Divers Club, www.norcalskindivers.com, will have more details as they are available.