Effects of experimental harvest on red sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) in northern Washington


Carter, Sarah K., and Glenn R. VanBlaricom
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Commercial harvest of red sea urchins began in Washington state in 1971. Harvests peaked in the late 1980s and have since declined substantially in Washington and other areas of the U.S. west coast. We studied effects of experimental harvest on red sea urchins in San Juan Channel (SJC), a marine reserve in northern Washington. We recorded changes in density and size distribution of sea urchin populations resulting from three levels of experimental harvest: 1) annual size-selective harvest (simulating current commercial urchin harvest regulations), 2) monthly complete (non–size-selective) harvest, and 3) no harvest (control) sites. We also examined recolonization rates of harvested sites. The red sea urchin population in SJC is composed of an accumulation of large, old individuals. Juvenile urchins represent less than 1% of the population. Lower and upper size limits for commercial harvest protect 5% and 45% of the population, respectively. Complete harvest reduced sea urchin densities by 95%. Annual size-selective harvest significantly decreased sea urchin densities by 67% in the first year and by 47% in the second year. Two years of size-selective harvest significantly altered the size distribution of urchins, decreasing the density of legal-size urchins. Recolonization of harvested sites varied seasonally and occurred primarily through immigration of adults. Selective harvest sites were recolonized to 51% and 38% of original densities, respectively, six months after the first and second annual harvests. Yields declined substantially in the second year of size-selective harvest because of the fishing down of the population and because of low recolonization rates of harvested sites. We recommend that managers consider the potential efficacy of marine harvest refuges and reevaluate the existing upper and lower size limits for commercial harvest to improve long-term management of the sea urchin fishery in Washington.