This week biologists with the state and U.S. Geological Survey surveyed four areas off the north end of Kaneohe Bay for sick urchins.
"They are kind of the canary in the coal mine. They are the early warning indicators of the health of the reef," said wildlife biologist Thierry Work.
The bad news is that they found evidence of dead or dying urchins much like what was found in waters off Hawaii Kai three months ago.
Work says it was the Nature Conservancy that flagged the death of about 300 collector urchins off of a sunken barge in Maunalua bay.
What's puzzling about the reports of dead or dying urchins is that they have been offshore. Nothing in the near shore waters, at least not yet.
Work has identified what he says is likely an infectious virus that is causing the die off.
Now, the challenge is trying to figure how it’s being transmitted and how to curb its spread.
"In the Carribean, they lost a lot of urchins which preceded a massive die-off of coral reefs. They didn’t know what was happening until the corals began dying from disease," Work said.
The state's sea urchin hatchery has been problem-free but there is some worry that whatever is causing the die-off will put a crimp in the efforts to clear the invasive algae in Kaneohe Bay.
To date, some 200,000 collector urchins have been seeded in the reefs.
"They are native and they very common and they are very important. They have this grazing capacity so they are very ecologically important for the reefs,” Work said.
"It seems to be limited to collector urchins. We have done surveys and you see sick collectors next to other species and the other species seem to be fine," said Work.
Work said unfortunately there isn’t a lot of science out there about the urchins and now there is an urgency to learn fast.
"They are important indicator organisms. Remember, the health of the reef sustains the health of our tourism. This may be an early indicator things are going kapakahi," said Work.
The public is being urged to report any potential problems with the Eyes of the Reef Hawaii network.