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Purple Urchin Profits 

click to enlarge Purple urchin using a clam shell for cover.

Photo by Mike Kelly

Purple urchin using a clam shell for cover.

As you may know, due largely to the loss of its primary predator to sea star wasting disease, the population of purple urchins (

Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) has exploded along the California coast. These urchins are eating enough algae to seriously impact the kelp forest ecosystem.

So, I ordered the Washed Up LLC branch chiefs to my penthouse office in Washed Up Tower to brainstorm ideas for turning a profit while controlling the urchins.

Washed Up's editor-in-chief said, "One word: Broth. These urchins are subsisting on new algal growth and any drift algae they can capture, so they are too emaciated for sushi. But the flavor's still there, so we just boil 'em up and strain out the solid bits."

I asked how many urchins we'd be able to process that way, and she said, "All of them." And I was like, "Whoa, that's a lot of broth! And the ecosystem still needs urchins, so maybe start small."

My design chief said, "There may be profit in the solid bits, too. Have you ever found an urchin shell, or "test," washed up on the beach? They are a globular biscuit shape with a hole on the bottom, which is their mouth, and a smaller hole on the top, which is their combination excretory and sexual discharge orifice. They are very pretty and have symmetrically arranged bumps where the spines attached, and tiny holes where their tube feet emerged. They would make attractive ornaments if we insert an LED to shine as radiating pinpoints through the tube foot holes. The LED would go in the mouth and you'd flick a little switch in the anus, and voilà, a sparkly little lantern!"

Washed Up's legal chief said, "That's interesting because the five teeth of an urchin form a structure called Aristotle's lantern. And I have an idea for the spines. We'll take the "acu" out of acupuncture. An adult purple urchin has hundreds of spines, so we charge people to roll around on a bed of them. They'll get punctured everywhere, curing all their diseases! When the urchins tire, we make broth."

Washed Up's chief engineer said, "I think purple urchins would make great pets because they can live for decades, like parrots. Plus, I've studied the tube feet, which are long hydraulically powered tubes with a little sucker at the end. The urchins use them to move around and manipulate objects like algae and the shells that they often cover themselves with for added protection. I imagine kicking back in a saltwater hot tub with my pet urchin in my lap while enjoying the gentle kisses of tube feet upon my ..."

"Whoa!" I said, "Washed Up is a family column and we don't condone erotic tube footsies. Plus, purple urchins can't live for long in water over about 70 degrees. And if it mistook your wiener for the arm of a predatory sea star, it would deploy its pedicellaria — movable stalks with three-jawed pinchers at the end — and you'd experience much discomfort. Plus, if it mistook your wiener for some algae, you'd lose a perfect five-sided plug to Aristotle's lantern."

I had always wondered why a newspaper column needs a chief engineer, so I made him kiss my ring and then fired him.

Satisfied, I addressed the remaining branch chiefs. "I'll collect as many purple urchins as I can carry. You find some rich sick people to roll on them. You get some LEDs. And you get the water boiling. We'll save the kelp forests and get rich!"

Biologist Mike Kelly (he/him) writes science-based satire as M. Sid Kelly. It's available at Eureka Books or everywhere ebooks are sold.

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