In March 2020, during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Khabane Lame, a young factory worker in the northern Italian industrial town of Chivasso, lost his job.
He went back to his family’s modest apartment, and despite the urging of his Senegalese father to apply for other jobs, he began spending hours each day posting videos to TikTok under the name Khaby Lame.
Using the social media app’s duet and stitch features, Mr. Lame, 21, capitalized on the momentum of viral and often absurdly complicated life hack videos — slicing open a banana with a knife, using odd contraptions to put on socks — by responding to them with wordless, easy-to-understand reaction clips in which he would do the same task in a much more straightforward manner.
He peels the banana. He puts on a pair of socks. And almost always he punctuates his gags with the video equivalent of a “duh” punchline, extending his arms as if to say voilà and offering an expressive roll of the eyes or shake of the head.
His early posts were mostly in Italian, with Italian subtitles; sometimes Mr. Lame spoke in his native, northern-accented tongue. But it was the wordless, expressive reaction clips — poking fun at forks transformed into spoons with tape or defending the sanctity of Italian pizza from a video that proposes Sour Patch Kids toppings — that have catapulted Mr. Lame to international stardom. With 65.6 million followers on TikTok and counting, if he continues acquiring followers at his current rate, or near it, he will become the most followed creator on the platform. (Currently that is Charli D’Amelio, 17, who has 116 million followers.)
“It’s my face and my expressions which make people laugh,” Mr. Lame said in an interview on Wednesday, a national holiday celebrating the birth of the Italian Republic. His muted reactions, he said, are a “global language.”
Mr. Lame’s meteoric rise as a digital creator is especially noteworthy because his work lacks the polished production value associated with the most famous TikTok stars of today, many of whom have been embraced by Hollywood. He didn’t find success through joining a collab house with other 20-somethings, or by relying on artificial growth like buying followers or views. His rise has been entirely organic.
The secret to Mr. Lame’s success is his universal exasperated everyman quality. “His content almost debunks or mocks the overproduced trends that happen across social media, whether it’s life hacks or other things like that,” said Samir Chaudry, a founder of The Publish Press, a newsletter covering the creator economy. “He almost represents this authenticity over production. I think that’s very appealing at scale to people, this feeling of someone not trying too hard, it’s something that feels authentic.”
About 40 days ago, when Mr. Lame hit 10 million followers, “I realized things were going well,” he said. Now, with more than 65 million followers, this is his full-time job.
Global Reach, from Italy
Mr. Lame’s admirers operate fan pages in English, German, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish and more. Well-known YouTubers, including King Bach, have contacted him for collaborations, and he’s making some money through TikTok’s Creator Fund and by working with brands, including, he said, the Italian pasta maker Barilla.
“Being an international star,” he said, “I’m much more in demand.”
But while Mr. Lame is known internationally as the Italian TikToker, he is not technically recognized as Italian in Italy. His lack of citizenship, despite living in Italy since the age of 1, attending Italian school and rabidly rooting for the Juventus soccer team, is “definitely wrong,” he said. “Sincerely, I don’t need a piece of paper to define myself as Italian,” he said, adding that his lack of an Italian passport has never given him any problems.
“Until now at least,” he said.
One unexpected side effect of Mr. Lame’s TikTok ascent is that it has exposed the vulnerable underside of his lack of Italian citizenship. His Senegalese passport has made it tougher to obtain a visa to visit the United States, he said. He’s still dealing with Italian bureaucracy and paperwork to get his citizenship.
Italian citizenship is based on blood and can be earned only by the children of immigrants who reach age 18 after living in the country since birth. For those not born in Italy, it can take much longer. Liberal lawmakers, despite their strong influence in the government, have largely shied away from previous efforts to change the law and extend citizenship to immigrants and their children who have long lived in Italy.
“I’m not a mayor, I’m no one. I can’t change the laws,” Mr. Lame said, as he sat in his manager’s Milan office next to an Ironman figure. Reminded that most lawmakers don’t have more than 60 million followers, he flashed his broad smile and added, “Maybe I can change it with the popularity. With my influence.”
Celebrities and other influential people are certainly taking notice of his rise. Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, commented a thumbs up emoji on one of Mr. Lame’s recent Instagram posts. On May 19, Mr. Lame appeared with Alessandro Del Piero, the legendary soccer player of his beloved Juventus team. Top influencers have reached out, inviting Mr. Lame to collaborate.
He has a large following in Brazil and the United States, the national soccer sweatshirts of which he often wears. He’s also huge in Senegal, where his family is from and where he is frequently talked about on television. Mr. Lame noted, “I’m more followed abroad than in Italy.”
Still, he said, fans stop him in the street and in restaurants to ask for selfies. “I have a lot of influence in Italy,” Mr. Lame said. It’s just not, he acknowledged, on the front pages of its magazines or newspapers or on the television news, mediums conquered by Chiara Ferragni, the influencer who is arguably the most powerful woman in Italy and who has been dipping her toe in politics and big business.
In late April, Mr. Lame surpassed Gianluca Vacchi as Italy’s most followed TikTok personality. Mr. Vacchi, 53, renowned for his dance routines and excessive lifestyle, is a fabulously wealthy scion of a plastics magnate. He is obsessively fit, abundantly tattooed and married to a model who is 26. Mr. Lame’s current manager, Riggio Alessandro, used to manage Mr. Vacchi.
While Mr. Vacchi represents a luxurious way of life often associated with Italian extravagance, Mr. Lame often posts from the bare-bones bedroom that he shares with his older brother. It is decorated with a Senegal flag and a Juventus soccer scarf. He used an outdated phone for many videos, and the lighting isn’t great.
But that’s what people like.
“I think that the problem that people are starting to see with big influencers is that they set certain standards of how to look, what’s cool and what’s not,” said Adam Meskouri, a 17-year-old student and content creator in Birmingham, Mich. “Then, Khaby comes and he’s just a normal dude. It’s been refreshing to see. It’s a lot easier to relate to him than most big influencers.”
Mr. Chaudry, of The Publish Press, noted that when it comes to the top three creators who still have more followers than Mr. Lame — Ms. D’Amelio, Addison Easterling and Bella Porch — the production value “has gone through the roof.”
“This opportunity to connect with someone who is unaffiliated, underproduced and feels very real is a juxtaposition of what we’re seeing in the social media space,” he said.
Meme Bait Money
Besides his shake-my-head clips, Mr. Lame’s content mostly consist of homages to his girlfriend and tight-knit group of friends. Some of his posts, though, while they would not cause much of a stir in Italy, would be off brand in the more progressive corners of the United States or Europe.
In one, he contrasts a voluptuous woman seductively saying “If you had 24 hours with me, what would you do?” by listing all the parts of the house he’d make her clean. In another, he makes fun of a woman who complained about being called an old hag on TikTok. In still another, he appears to console a weeping woman with a plate for her to clean.
Part of Mr. Lame’s success is related to how prime his content is for getting sucked into the internet aggregation machine. YouTubers create compilation videos of his TikTok clips to attract millions of views.
Mr. Lame’s content is also perfect “meme page bait,” meaning that many meme pages download his TikTok videos and repost them to Instagram for easy engagement, or they use his face for reaction images. His videos are also frequently reposted to Twitter, where they spread further.
Many Black TikTok creators in the United States have been outspoken in the past year about their struggle to obtain proper credit for the online trends they produce, as well as the racism they experience. Prominent Black Italians, including Mario Balotelli, once the country’s most famous Black soccer star, have also talked about enduring years of racism.
But Mr. Lame said he has had a different experience. “My friends have always been protective of me,” he said. “I’ve never had such a problem. No one has ever dared insult me because we were a united group and had a lot of respect.”
Mr. Lame said he believes his comedic facial expressions and the simplicity of his content have helped him grow at the rate he has. He also posts frequently — nearly every single day to TikTok and all day every day to Instagram Stories.
“The secret is endurance above all,” he said.
Though Mr. Lame may soon become the most followed TikTok star in the world, he insisted he doesn’t treat TikTok like a competition. He said he doesn’t encounter content by Charli D’Amelio very much (though Ms. D’Amelio’s sister, Dixie D’Amelio, also a top creator, does follow him and he follows her back). “I’m happy to be the first in Italy and all, but I didn’t start TikTok for this,” he said.
He got into it, he said, to make people laugh, like his idols Will Smith, Eddie Murphy and the Pugliese actor Checco Zalone, known for his broad Italian comedies. Mr. Lame said he hopes to one day join their ranks.
He is steadily making money but has not made enough to realize his dream of buying his mother a house. “Maybe,” he said, “in the future.”
Beirut, a City Where Everyone Gets By, Revisits Sectarian Violence
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Tony Nohra, a shopkeeper in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut, was receiving a shipment of yogurt on Friday, the day after sectarian clashes killed seven people in the city, and talking about how many Shiite Muslim friends he had.
But when asked how the violence had begun, he snapped. “You have to ask the guys there,” he said, angrily pointing toward the Shiite neighborhood nearby.
Overhearing the comment, the Shiite man delivering the yogurt cut in.
“No, no,” he insisted. “It started from here.”
Most of the time, residents of Beirut, a scrappy Mediterranean city whose roughly 2.5 million inhabitants represent tremendous ethnic and religious diversity, get by and get along. They do business, socialize and even marry outside of their religious groups.
Various denominations of Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Druze, Armenians, Syrian and Palestinian refugees and other groups crowd together, often sharing employers, neighborhoods and apartment buildings.
But the clashes on Thursday, the worst sectarian violence in Lebanon’s capital in years, revealed tensions lurking just beneath the surface in a city haunted by 15 years of civil war.
Apartment buildings still bear scars from gunfights during the civil war, during which sectarian militias of Muslims, Christians and others battled off and on until 1990. And although it has long been erased, nearly everyone knows the path of the “green line” that divided the city between the Christian East and Muslim West during the hostilities.
It was near that invisible border that fighting erupted on Thursday, when snipers in tall buildings fired on Shiites passing by the neighborhood on their way to a protest. By Saturday, the authorities had arrested 19 people for involvement in the clashes, the state-run National News Agency reported, without providing further details on the suspects.
The violence played out against the backdrop of devastating political and economic crises that have left many residents feeling there is not much of a state left to protect them, a situation that has only increased feelings of loyalty to and dependence on their sects.
Since the autumn of 2019, the currency has collapsed, siphoning value from people’s salaries and savings and causing prices to skyrocket. Amid perpetual bickering, the political elite has failed to slow the descent.
And a huge explosion in the port of Beirut last year killed more than 215 people, damaged large swaths of the city and left many Beirutis feeling that their government’s history of poor management and corruption was endangering their lives.
It was the repercussions from the explosion — namely efforts by politicians and other officials to exempt themselves from responsibility for it — that led to the events on Thursday.
Two Shiite political parties — Hezbollah, a militant group that the United States considers a terrorist organization, and the Amal Movement — led a protest calling for the removal of the judge leading the investigation into the explosion.
On their way to the protest, many participants walked down a commercial boulevard that separates two very different neighborhoods.
On one side is Mr. Nohra’s predominantly Christian neighborhood, Ein al-Remaneh, where many residents wear crosses, pepper their Arabic with French and name their children after Catholic saints.
On the other is the mostly Shiite Muslim Chiyah, where flags bearing the names of Shiite Muslim martyrs hang from lampposts, women wear head scarves and residents see Iran as more likely to help Lebanon solve its many problems than is the United States.
Residents of the two neighborhoods frequently go back and forth. Christians shop for deals in the Shiite area, where traders have a knack for avoiding paying customs duties. And less devout Shiites buy beer from the Christians, sometimes drinking it on site if they can’t take it home.
Like many in Beirut, the residents often view local conflicts as skirmishes in broad geopolitical battles involving the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran. They offered drastically different explanations for what had set off the violence.
In Ein al-Remaneh, Christians accused the protesters of entering their neighborhood with arms, a provocation.
“Who comes to a peaceful protest with weapons?” asked Fadi Qarout, 57, a Christian merchant who has lived in the area since before the civil war.
He acknowledged that snipers from a Chrisitan militia could have deployed before the protest, but accused the Shiites of showing force in a community that was not theirs.
“They entered the area to cause problems here,” he said.
Mr. Nohra agreed.
“Who got hurt more?” he said, mentioning the nearby chandelier shop and car dealership that had been damaged in the gunfight.
When reminded that all seven people who had been killed were Shiites, including a woman who had been tending to laundry on her balcony, he resorted to an all-too-common Lebanese explanation for facts that don’t mesh with the preferred narrative: the conspiracy theory.
The Shiites, he said, shot at themselves “to inflame the situation.”
Hezbollah and its allies accused snipers from the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party that is supported by Saudi Arabia, of firing at their members, forcing them to respond. The Lebanese Forces denied involvement in the attack, and their leader, Samir Geagea, blamed Hezbollah.
A short distance from Mr. Nohra’s shop, across the boulevard in Chiyah, a group of Shiite men, dressed in black to mourn those killed, spun conspiracy theories of their own, saying the snipers were part of a plot involving the United States and its allies to weaken Hezbollah and its allies.
None of the men agreed to give their names.
“Yes, there was an ambush and the embassies and intelligence agencies planned it,” said a man known as Abu Ali, whom residents described as being in charge of the area and who declined to give his real name.
He wore a military-style shirt, sported a pistol on his belt and ran a coffee shop called Al Sultan that was covered with pictures of Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.”
The snipers, he was sure, had been trained by the United States, he said.
Hezbollah would seek revenge when it chose to, he said, adding, “When there is silence, it is because we are planning our response.”
As he spoke, men in black shirts left the cafe, grabbed automatic rifles and sped off on motor scooters toward the funerals for their comrades killed the day before.
Near the cemetery, thousands of members and supporters of Hezbollah filled the streets, blasting their Kalashnikovs into the sky, covering the asphalt with bullet casings and filling the air with smoke.
It was an armed gathering larger than any other group in Lebanon can summon, reflecting the strength that exempts Hezbollah from any control by the Lebanese state.
“The Shiites in Lebanon are weak without Hezbollah, but Hezbollah has no choice but to be strong since they are surrounded by enemies,” said Abbas al-Moualem, a nurse who attended the funerals.
Iman Fadlallah, 45, who was mourning a relative who had been killed the day before, acknowledged that Lebanon’s meltdown had hurt her family. They lacked electricity, and prices had risen so fast they could rarely afford meat.
But she remained religiously and politically committed to Hezbollah.
“Our commitment to the party is bigger,” she said. “If I don’t eat meat, it’s fine.”
Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting.
After Iraqi Election, a Shiite Leader Emerges as an Unlikely U.S. Ally
In the 18 years since he formed the Mahdi Army militia to battle occupying U.S. forces, the one-time firebrand has refined his delivery. His formal Arabic is more proficient, and his voice more assured. Looking up to address the camera, he raised a finger in emphasis in remarks carefully crafted to send messages to both the United States and Iran after his party picked up seats in last week’s parliamentary election.
In 2004, as Mr. al-Sadr’s fighters took on U.S. forces with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in Baghdad and across the southern provinces, the United States pledged to kill or capture the Shiite cleric.
Next to Al Qaeda, he posed the biggest threat to the American occupation in Iraq, miring U.S. troops in fighting in the streets and alleys of Iraqi cities as the military fought both Sunni and Shiite-based insurgencies.
Although still unpredictable, the cleric is consistently an Iraqi nationalist and now seems to be emerging as an arm’s-length American ally, helping the United States by preventing Iraq from tilting further into Iran’s axis.
“All embassies are welcome, as long as they do not interfere in Iraqi affairs and government formation,” Mr. al-Sadr said in a reference aimed at the United States, whose embassy was stormed two years ago by what were believed to be members of Kitaib Hezbollah, one of the biggest Iranian-backed Iraqi militias. “Iraq is for Iraqis only.”
In preliminary results from last Sunday’s elections, the Sadrist Movement gained roughly 20 seats, giving it up to 73 seats in the 329-member parliament. That leaves Mr. al-Sadr with the biggest single bloc in Parliament and a decisive voice in choosing the next Iraqi prime minister.
In his remarks, the cleric made a pointed reference to Iranian-backed militias, some of which have grown more powerful than Iraq’s official security forces and pose a threat to the United States in Iraq.
“From now on, arms must be restricted in the hands of the state,” he said in the address, broadcast on Iraqi state television. “The use of weapons shall be prevented outside of the state’s framework.” Even for those claiming to be the “resistance” to the U.S. presence, he said, “it is time for the people to live in peace, without occupation, terrorism, militias, kidnapping and fear.”
The self-styled resistance groups are the same Iranian-backed militias that launched drone and rocket attacks on the American Embassy and U.S. military bases after the U.S. killing of a leading Iranian commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and a senior Iraqi security official in Baghdad last year.
An aide to the Shiite cleric said disarming groups that are not under government control would also apply to Mr. al-Sadr’s own militia forces.
“No country wants forces that are stronger than its army,” said Dhia al-Assadi, a former top official in the cleric’s political movement. He said Mr. al-Sadr would leave it to the incoming government to decide whether U.S. forces should remain in Iraq.
The United States has agreed to withdraw all combat troops from the country by Dec. 31, although Washington does not consider its troops there currently to be on a combat mission. Under that agreement, the number of U.S. forces — about 2,000 in Iraq at Baghdad’s invitation — is expected to remain the same.
“That is labeling or classifying the troops as trainers and not fighters,” said Mr. al-Assadi, who served as the head of Mr. al-Sadr’s former Ahrar political bloc. “The decision should be revisited again and decided by Parliament and the government.”
Mr. al-Assadi said he does not foresee any change in an existing ban on senior officials of the Sadrist Movement from meeting with U.S. or British officials.
Once a fierce sectarian defender of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Mr. al-Sadr has expanded his reach in recent years, reaching out to Sunnis, Christians and other minorities. After telling his followers to protect Christians, young men from Mr. Sadr’s stronghold in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad’s Sadr City began wearing large crosses around their necks in a sign of solidarity. In a previous election, the Sadrists formed an alliance with the Communist Party, which is officially atheist.
Externally, he has fostered relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at a time when those countries’ Sunni Arab rulers were hostile to Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Domestically, one of his main demands is to clean up Iraq’s dysfunctional and deeply corrupt political system, which appoints people to senior government posts on the basis of party loyalty rather than competence.
“He has grown and evolved,” said Nabeel Khoury, a former U.S. State Department official who served in Iraq in 2003. “But I think to some extent we underestimated him in the very beginning.”
Mr. Khoury said that he was approached in 2003 by Mr. al-Sadr’s aides as Iraq’s first governing council was being decided.
“We had coffee, we talked and they said Sadr was interested in playing a political role,” said Mr. Khoury, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. But Iraqi political figures who had returned from exile did not want Mr. al-Sadr involved, Mr. Khoury said, and the United States followed their counsel.
A few months later, the cleric formed his Mahdi Army militia to fight occupying troops.
When U.S. forces had an opportunity to kill Mr. al-Sadr during a battle in Najaf, Washington told them to stand down, also on the advice of the Iraqi expatriate politicians, said Mr. Khoury, adding: “They knew if Sadr was killed it would become a big problem for them.”
Mr. al-Sadr, 47, is the youngest son of a revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999 after demanding religious freedom for Iraq’s Shiites. The Sadr family commands the loyalty of millions, many of them poor and disposed, most of whom believe his election win was ordained by God.
In Sadr City, the Sadrist organization provides food, support for orphans and widows and many other services the Iraqi government fails to deliver.
“He would like to achieve certain objectives, and the main objective is social justice,” said Mr. al-Assadi of the cleric’s aims. He likened Mr. al-Sadr’s goals to those of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Ghandi.
But unlike the Black civil rights leader or India’s pacifist icon, Mr. al-Sadr has overseen an armed militia that has waxed and waned but never entirely gone away.
The Mahdi Army has been blamed for fueling Iraq’s past sectarian violence. As it battled with Sunni fighters of Al Qaeda for supremacy in Iraq between 2006 and 2008, Mr. al-Sadr’s fighters were accused of running death squads and conducting sectarian cleansings of Baghdad neighborhoods.
Mr. al-Sadr has said that not all the fighters were under his control.
In 2008, after losing a fight with Iraqi government forces for control of Basra, Mr. al-Sadr — who lacks the religious credentials of his father — abruptly left for Iran to pursue his theological studies.
Yet he has long had an uneasy relationship with Tehran, and while he cannot afford to antagonize its leaders, he advocates an Iraq free of both Iranian and American influence.
“I think he has his own space in which he walks, and his base is not dictated by any country, especially not the Iranians,” said Elie Abouaoun, a director at the United States Institute of Peace, a U.S. government-funded think tank. “I think that he is much less sectarian than many, many others because he has a nationalist vision of Iraq.”
‘Zombie’ Urchins Are Destroying Kelp Forests. Can’t We Just Eat Them?
ALBION, Calif. — A decade ago, when Gary Trumper used to dive for sea urchins, the docks here were packed with commercial fishing vessels. Mr. Trumper and his diving partner, Byron Koehler, would steer through masses of tangled kelp and return after a few hours of work with what Mr. Koehler described as enough red urchin to sink their 26-foot boat.
No longer. Today, more than 95 percent of California’s coastal kelp are gone, devoured by a population explosion of purple sea urchins in the past seven years. This proliferation has led to dead zones known as “urchin barrens,” where carpets of urchins can be seen for miles. One such barren encompasses 400 miles of coastline from Marin County to the Oregon border.
“This bay should be choked off with kelp,” Mr. Trumper said as he gestured over the side of his boat.
The problem has reverberated throughout the international seafood market and created an environmental crisis along the California coast. Fishermen, state officials and now some entrepreneurs are scrambling to slow and even reverse the damage. Among the wide-ranging solutions that have been proposed are aggressive aquaculture programs and the deployment of robotic predators — a sort of Roomba for urchins.
Uni, the delicate meat inside an urchin’s spiny shell, is a pricey delicacy. So it might seem that a surplus of urchins would be good business for commercial divers, but Mr. Trumper explained that the opposite is true. The purple urchins off the California coast are mostly inedible because they contain little to no uni. Having overgrazed the coastal kelp and devastated the red urchin population, the purple urchins are now starving. Worse still, they can exist in this state of starvation for decades, lying in wait to gobble up any kelp spores that appear, which prevents kelp forests from growing back.
Mr. Trumper, who is now in his 50s, has been diving since he was 10 with his father, the founder of the commercial fishery Pacific Rim Seafood. “We had so many markets we lost because we couldn’t supply them with product,” he said. Now, he is at a loss for what to do: “It’s the only job I ever had.” Mr. Trumper’s own son, like many other urchin divers in the area, seeks mostly nonfishing work.
This shortage of edible urchins has affected restaurants as well, just as Americans were developing a palate for the delicacy. Uni has long been a staple of Japanese and Italian cuisine, but can be found on plates in places as far-flung as Chile and is increasingly making its way into Californian fare.
Nico Peña, the chef de cuisine at Octavia, a fine-dining restaurant in San Francisco, says that the urchin available off California’s North Coast “has a beautiful umami flavor with an ocean salinity,” adding that “the texture is super luscious.” He serves it in its dramatic spiny urchin shell with a side of cultured butter and brioche toast.
He first encountered uni while working at the pasta station at Quince, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant across town, where it was cooked down and used to thicken a cream sauce. Uni is incredibly delicate — its melt-in-your-mouth texture is part of its appeal — so less picturesque pieces that have lost their form can be turned into uni butter and used on pasta dishes. Mr. Peña says he jumps at the chance to add uni to Octavia’s menu because it sells so well and fits with his culinary philosophy of leaning on locally sourced ingredients.
But since July, he’s struggled to source it. “I noticed that there is a lot less than what I was able to get before,” he said, adding that other chefs have had to eliminate uni dishes altogether.
The urchin trouble began in 2014 with “a perfect storm of bad things for kelp,” according to Laura Rogers-Bennett, a research associate at the University of California, Davis and a scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. There was a major marine heat wave from 2014 to 2016, which was driven by climate change and El Niño weather events.
Simultaneously, sea urchins’ main predator, sunflower sea stars, were wiped out by a sea star wasting syndrome. This created what fishermen and scientists call a “purple carpet,” where the urchins wait in a starving “zombie” state for any sprouts of kelp to grow, thus turning the area into a lifeless urchin barren. And without any uni meat, the urchins are unattractive to other predators like sea otters.
Uni divers like Mr. Trumper and Mr. Koehler were among the first to notice the problem. “They took over the shallows and spread like wildfire,” Mr. Trumper said.
During the 2015 survey season, Ms. Rogers-Bennett said she recalled thinking, “Oh my god, there are purple urchins everywhere, and there’s no kelp canopy.”
Kelp forests, commonly referred to by marine biologists as “the lungs of the ocean” because of how they sequester carbon, are essential for a healthy ocean ecosystem. The decline of the California kelp forests sent other marine populations, including red abalone, into such a death spiral that the California Fish and Game Commission closed that abalone fishery in 2017 and announced it would not reopen until at least 2026.
Ms. Rogers-Bennett explained that tackling the problem now, while even a marginal amount of kelp remains, is of the utmost urgency. “If we go down to zero kelps, then trying to restore them is a huge amount of work,” she said. But outcry has been limited mostly to those in the food and conservation sectors. “If 90 percent of the trees in California disappeared,” Ms. Rogers-Bennett said, “then I think people would be much more concerned about the problem.”
The problem has resulted in unlikely partnerships between business interests and conservationists. On a misty morning in late August, Mr. Trumper and Mr. Koehler are not diving for the commercial seafood industry; they’re working for Reef Check, a nonprofit that has partnered with the state government to tackle the problem.
Mr. Trumper and Mr. Koehler are being paid a day rate to pluck every urchin they can from designated zones. The urchins are then brought to Reef Check’s lab where they are analyzed and then used for compost, paving or other purposes. Mr. Trumper explained that these days, working for conservation organizations is the only way they can make a reliable income, but he said even with that, he was earning “just enough money to keep the lights on.” At the end of the day, they collect hundreds of wriggling spiny purple urchins from a designated area smaller than an Olympic-size swimming pool. Their haul fills two large industrial trash cans.
Morgan Murphy-Cannella, a kelp-restoration coordinator at Reef Check who works with Mr. Trumper and Mr. Koehler, said that working with commercial divers is important not just for curtailing the devastating impact on local industries, but also because they know the sea best. “They have thousands of underwater hours,” she said. “They know the reef really well. They’re able to notice patterns.”
So far, their efforts appear to be helping. Mr. Trumper says that kelp is regrowing in the areas where they have pulled urchin. Ms. Murphy-Cannella added that a similar project in Noyo Bay in Mendocino County showed promising results. “This type of restoration works,” she said. But she is far from optimistic. “How do we use this over the bigger scale?” she said. “It’s impossible to clear an entire coastline of urchin.”
Last year, Ms. Rogers-Bennett’s team at U.C. Davis collaborated with a company called Urchinomics, which had been working on similar problems in Norway and Japan. Together, along with the Nature Conservancy, they worked to determine whether their technologies were transferable to California.
They embarked on a yearlong study to see if they could take the starving urchin and make them commercially viable. Urchinomics hired divers to take the starving urchins from the barrens and bring them to aquaculture tanks on land, where they were fed pellets made from scraps of discarded seaweed. Urchinomics’ chief executive, Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda, explained that the choice of feed is incredibly important. “If an urchin is sitting on a dead herring, it will taste like that herring,” he said. “An urchin that’s eating umami-rich kelp essentially tastes like a lot of umami.”
At the end of 12 weeks on this diet, when the urchin shells were cracked in half, there was plump, deep yellow uni inside. The company has begun doing test sales in the United States and is selling to a larger market in Japan. While the commercial aspect appears to be working, Ms. Rogers-Bennett was enthusiastic about the ecological implications. “This is actually better than sustainable,” she said, “because the more you fish it, the better off the kelp forest will be. This is a restorative seafood product.”
When asked what his company would do if they are successful in clearing out barrens off the Southern California coast where they are currently operating, Mr. Tsuyoshi Takeda said that he anticipated no shortage of work. First, they would move up the coast, clearing out the barrens in Northern California and Oregon. And there are urchin barrens all over the world.
Another company, Marauder Robotics, is in the process of developing artificially intelligent underwater predator robots that collect urchins from the seafloor. It is currently conducting experiments in Southern California. In 2018, Dennis Yancey, the company’s chief executive, estimated that one robot could do the work of 75 commercial divers.
Though these kinds of efforts undoubtedly make a dent in the problem, Ms. Murphy-Cannella of Reef Check suggests that “the solution is going to be multiple avenues working together.”
“We can’t eat our way out,” she said.
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