New breakthrough in sea urchin farming

Sea urchins (Echinoidea) come in 200 different varieties, distinctive by their long spikes completely covering their hard shells, which they use to move about and trap particles of food. Preferring warmer temperatures, they dwell upon the ocean floor and coral reefs worldwide. Living between 15 years to an astonishing 200 urchins can grow between 3-10cm in size.

The Japanese have considered these creatures a delectable food source for centuries and are one of the only countries which farm and regularly eat sea urchins.

Often compared to the taste of scallops, with a smooth and custard-like texture, the Japanese regularly have sea urchin (uni) sushi, and sea urchin roe, which is actually the reproductive organs of the sea urchin. Considered a delicacy, sea urchin roe can retail for over US$450 per kg, served raw as sashimi or often with soy sauce and wasabi. In the Mediterranean, people often eat sea urchin with lemon, whilst in New Zealand it is named “kina” eaten raw.

Green Seafoods, a company in Newfoundland, is working with Memorial University scientists on grow-out trials for sea urchins. The company is striving to formulate the right feed to increase the roe (gonads) to a marketable size.

In 2000, Green Seafoods did grow-out trials but ran into problems surrounding the feed formula. Operations manager Mark Sheppard says “the sea urchins they were raising ended up tasting like what they had just eaten, for instance, kelp or fish protein, making them unsaleable”.

Together with Norway-based Urchinomics, Nofima, a Norwegian fisheries institute and Japan’s Mitsubishi Corp,this collaboration can transform specific kelps into urchin feed. Finally, there is a chance they can successfully create a marketable product internationally.

There is a growing confidence in preparation for commercialisation of urchin. Sheppard states, “We know that [Urchinomics feed] works in the lab. We are going to do some full-blown commercial trials.”

Sheppard expresses that he thinks “the best area for farming sea urchins is in Canada, where green urchins (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis) swarm the area in abundance and are available throughout the year. Sea urchins are also much easier to maintain than normal fish that are farmed for aquaculture purposes, not having the same food or water flow demands that many finfish require”.

Urchinomics President, Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda, says they are now in the process of refining the feed formulation, in order to enhance performance and ecological footprint.
“Our first major step was to replace all animal-based ingredients (fish oil and fishmeal) with sustainably harvested kelp alternatives. This makes our feed even more environmentally sustainable as we are now fishmeal and fish-oil as well as hormone and antibiotics-free”, Takeda clarifies.

Takeda adds that “by using Japanese kombu (Laminaria japonica), a kelp variety naturally high in umami (savoury flavour), we can produce the best urchins”.

Urchins can destroy and occupy once-productive kelp forests, keeping them barren for decades or even centuries, this unassuming but destructive creature makes for a dangerous environmental threat that can be minimised with the development of sea urchin farming, also known as ranching, in most countries.

The Urchinomics solution is to engage fishers, ecologists, and scientists to identify and remove empty, unproductive urchins that hinder kelp forests from recovering and place them in quality ranching facilities to encourage economic gain for local communities ready for export.

Sheppard concludes, “We are taking barren urchins, harvesting them sustainably and using a land-based system to turn them into a high-value product that can support our Canadian labour costs”.

Editor: Victoria Rose

Related Article: Fishboost project: Advancements in fish breeding


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