Large-Scale Sea Urchin Culling Drives the Reduction of Subtidal Barren Grounds in the Mediterranean Sea
Increasing anthropogenic pressures are causing long-lasting regime shifts from high-diversity ecosystems to low-diversity ones. In the Mediterranean Sea, large expanses of rocky subtidal habitats characterized by high diversity have been completely degraded to the barren state due to the high grazing pressure exerted by sea urchins, which could persist for a long time. In several areas of the world, removal of sea urchins has been found to have a positive effect on the recovery of overexploited subtidal rocky habitats. This study assessed, for the first time in the Mediterranean Sea, the effects of extensive sea urchin culling on the recovery of subtidal reefs from the barren state. We tested this approach within a Marine Protected Area where a combination of oligotrophic conditions, general depletion of fish stocks, dramatically high sea urchin densities, and the large expanses of barren grounds caused by date mussel fishery have hampered the natural recovery of shallow rocky reefs. Culling intervention (through hammering) was carried out in spring 2015, covering an area of 1.2 hectares at about 5 m depth. The effects of sea urchin removal were monitored at regular intervals for a time span of 3 years and were compared with two control sites adjacent to the culling area. We documented a progressive reduction in the extent of barren grounds in the fully protected area after the intervention. Also, very low re-colonization of sea urchins was observed during the experiment, so that no additional extensive culling was necessary. Our findings suggested sea urchin culling as a promising practice, also considering the limited costs of the intervention. However, since the reduction in extent of barren grounds was largely driven by turf-forming algae, caution is needed in the interpretation of the outcomes in terms of restoration, and results are discussed considering the factors involved in the observed shift and the synergies to be carried out for a full recovery of the system.