The creation, persistence, and demise of sea urchin barrens is the most significant ecological dynamic on southeast Australian rocky reefs. Sea urchin barrens cover ca. 50% of nearshore reefs in NSW and have rapidly grown in Tasmania and far eastern Victoria. The creation and/or persistence of barrens has devastating impacts on a range of commercial and recreational fisheries, most notably abalone.
Managing fisheries to deliver societal benefits within the ecological regime driven by sea urchins presents a profound challenge. Dynamics external to the fishery are very influential and challenge classical fisheries governance paradigms. Overlayed on these ecological challenges are diverse stakeholders that have different visions for nearshore reefs and therefore the definitions of success.
New management objectives will be required, some of which will mean manipulating ecosystems and human behaviours to avoid thresholds in ecological variables in, among other species, sea urchin abundance, rather than optimizing yields in a classical fisheries sense. New institutional relationships will be required among policy makers, Indigenous groups, conservationists, and the fishing industry as they grapple with potential alternative futures for these reefs.
Considerable momentum is emerging in NSW to engage with this wicked problem. A unique opportunity exists to re-imagine the management of NSW reefs; to design a management regime in which all stakeholders have a place at the table. Fundamental to developing common purpose among diverse stakeholders will be a shared and scientifically informed understanding of the underlying ecology of reefs. This understanding will enable and promote the design for a spatial regime that serves multiple management and cultural objectives.
Achieving that shared understanding is hampered by the unavailability of scientific studies of the fisheries and ecology of sea urchins in southeast Australia. There is an urgent need to bring the comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of Centrostephanus on NSW reefs and relevance to fisheries (abalone, sea urchins) into the public domain to contribute more effectively to management.