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They came off the ocean floor by the hundreds, spiky purple spheres scraped into canvas bags by divers from around the North Bay compelled to try to preserve what remains of the North Coast’s ravaged kelp forest and the red abalone fishery it once supported.

About 7,100 pounds of kelp-gobbling purple urchins — an estimated 56,800 individual organisms — were collected over a two-day cull that drew 100 sport divers to the rocky Ocean Cove on the Sonoma Coast to vent long pent-up frustration and angst over the state of their diving grounds.

“This is a day I’ve waited four years for,” Timber Cove diver Jason O’Donnell, 45, said as he paddled ashore with a pile of bulging urchin bags aboard his kayak. “I don’t want to watch the whole ocean die and do nothing.”

Participants came from all over Sonoma County and as far away as Sacramento, San Jose and Hayward to take part in the Memorial Day weekend effort which, at its peak, had more than 85 divers deployed simultaneously in the waters just south of Salt Point State Park.

Among them were Bodega Bay rancher Che Casul, 32, who arrived with two friends to pitch in after years of watching the kelp die off, putting all kinds of sea life at risk. Casul, accompanied by Joel Franceschi, 32, of Forestville, and Gene Davis, 34, of Bodega, said he was alarmed by the state of the ocean but also by the limited awareness of the changes taking place under the its surface.

“We’re pretty excited to do whatever measures we can,” Davis said.

Both free divers and scuba divers participated, collecting as many urchins as possible from the underwater rocks and storing them in floats on the surface until support crews in kayaks could make a pickup and deliver them to shore.

There, other volunteers dumped the spiny critters into 5-gallon buckets, where the urchins — mostly starving and filled with salt water — were crushed and transferred to refuse bins for use as soil amendment at the private campground on the bluff overhead.

“We were pulling some out that were softball size,” said Matt Warren, 59, of Alameda, whose companion, Debra Lynne Popplewell, said she learned to dive largely so she could help.

The event was organized by the Watermen’s Alliance consortium of California spearfishing clubs in response to shifting ocean conditions that over the past seven years have transformed the North Coast’s once lush bull kelp forest into an urchin- covered wasteland, bereft of most other marine life.

Many of those gathered for the weekend might have been hunting abalone in another time.

But this year’s abalone season was canceled months ago, a casualty of the domination of the small purple urchins, which in recent years have out-grazed diminishing numbers of abalone and razed the North Coast’s iconic bull kelp forests so thoroughly that scientists estimate more than 90 percent of it has been lost.

It remains to be seen whether the well- coordinated clearing will have an impact on the ecology in Ocean Cove, one of several coastal locations targeted for urchin removal by recreational divers. In addition to planning their own eradication efforts, recreational groups have raised more than $100,000 to pay commercial divers for large-scale clearings at several other coves on the North Coast.

Joshua Russo, president of the Watermen’s Alliance and of the Sonoma County Abalone Network, said the Ocean Cove event, the very first outing for sport divers, exceeded his expectations.

With enthusiastic support from the Memorial Day crew, he’s already scheduled another urchin removal in Albion Cove, July 21 and 22, based out of Schooner’s Landing.

“People want to make a difference in the ocean,” Russo said.

For those who took part in Ocean Cove, the effort proved both exhilarating and sobering, fulfilling a need to take action even as it crystallized the overwhelming scope of the challenge.

“As many urchins as we’ve taken out of here, I don’t think we’ve taken even a tenth,” said veteran Gualala diver Jack Likins, 73.

Some of the divers at Ocean Cove reported seeing two or three shrunken abalone among the urchins, mostly surrounded on all sides and even covered by urchins grazing on their shells. The abalone were packed so tightly amid the urchins that they couldn’t move, so the divers would focus on clearing everything around them to the extent they could.

Organizers view the effort as part desperate experiment — an effort to see if the kelp will return to areas where the urchins are cleared — and part last-ditch attempt to save enough abalone to keep the species alive.

“Right now, we’re just fighting for the next generation,” said Douglas Jung of Santa Rosa. “We’re just trying to buy some time.”

There’s little available food, however, and even the purple urchins — already too small to harvest economically for food — are starving.

Cynthia Catton, an environmental scientist with California Fish and Wildlife stationed at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab, has been on the forefront of research and policy conversations related to the kelp forest collapse. She attended the cull with two assistants to take samples of collected urchins, documenting their size, the depths from which they were taken and other details.

She noted that nearly all were starving, their reproductive organs shrunken and their gut contents reinforcing recent findings that the urchins have resorted to scraping what they can off coralline algae to try to survive — victims of their own explosive population growth. “That’s kind of desperation mode,” Catton said.

But Catton said it felt good to work alongside sportsmen and women who have sometimes been frustrated by the Fish and Wildlife’s cautious approach to the urchin issue and fishery management in general.

“What this speaks to is how we can best pool our resources on multiple fronts,” Catton said.

Sonoma County naturalist and Reef Check California volunteer Steven Howard expressed a frequently heard sentiment

“It’s good to finally be part of something and get some work done,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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