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Sea urchins: from pest to plate

It is one of the best paid seafood products and destroys kelp forests worth millions of NOK. Can sea urchin harvest be profitable?

This is what a project lead by the Norwegian Institute of Water Research (NIVA) is about. The project is part of a research program at The Fram Centre in Tromsø.

Sought-after delicacy

The genital gland of a sea urchin, the so-called gonad, is found inside the urchin. This organ stores nutrients, and contains milt and roe during the spawning season in spring. The gonads are very popular in sushi dishes in especially in Asia, but also in other parts of the world.

Sea urchin gonads
Sea urchin gonads. (Photo: Marco Busdraghi/Wikimedia Commons)
Researcher Wenting Chen, NIVA, leads a research project called ECOURCHIN. She states that sea urchin gonads are used commercially in as different countries as Canada, USA, France, Iceland, Ireland, Chile, Mexico, China, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, Spain, and the Philippines. The project is a cooperation between NIVA, UiT – The Arctic University of Norway, the food research institute NOFIMA, and the University of California, Berkeley.

An unprofitable catch?

There are billions of sea urchins along Norway´s coastline, and catching sea urchin is doing the marine ecosystems a favor. But as a viable industry, the amounts of milt – or gonads - collected have to be worth the effort of harvesting sea urchins and extracting the gonads.

The green Drøbak sea urchin is the most common sea urchin in Norway. It is popular in Japan, but the harvest is not profitable since the amounts of milt per sea urchin are too small. Milt extraction is costly, and high yields are a key factor for an economically sustainable sea urchin industry.

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The green Drøbak sea urchin is popular in Japan. (Photo: Janne Kim Gitmark, NIVA)

Even sea urchin farming has shown to be challenging, both in Norway and internationally. But new innovative solutions are emerging, and new feed might be one solution to achieve a profitable sea urchin industry. February 21st this year, the Norwegian Government presented their new strategy for the development of marine industries in Norway. In addition to continued support to existing important marine industries, the government wishes to facilitate research, innovation, and development of new technologies, to ensure Norway´s position as one of the leading maritime nations in the world. OECD, Organisation for European Economic Co-operation and Development, says sustainability is crucial for blue growth.

- We want to facilitate both harvest and farming of new species. More research is necessary to ensure that this is done within sustainable frames, the Norwegian minister of fisheries, Per Sandberg, says.

From pest to plate

In the ECOURCHIN project (Sea urchin harvest: Ecosystem recovery, integrated management of social-ecological system, ecosystem service and sustainability), economists and natural scientists work together to find strategies for sustainable sea urchin harvest in Norway. In addition to possible economic benefits, sea urchin harvest has positive consequences for the coastal ecosystems. The ECOURCHIN researchers are working on bigger, socioeconomic analysis, where the economic benefits from reestablished kelp forests also are included.

- Reestablishment of kelp forests and an increased biodiversity are some of the ecosystem effects of sea urchin harvest. These are factors we include in the calculations, Wenting Chen says.

Kelp forest researchers at NIVA have previously estimated the economic value of a healthy kelp forest to  15 million NOK per square kilometer per year. Kelp forests are important habitats for fish, and the populations of cod and Pollock will benefit from the reestablishment of kelp forests. Several NIVA-reports describe the challenge of sea urchins feeding on kelp forests, and sustainable harvest of these pests would be a win-win.

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Sea urchin feeding on kelp, leaving nothing but open areas of rock. (Photo: NIVA)

The ECOURCHIN project will be finished by the end of this year. Current data indicate that there is a market for sea urchins, and that gourmet companies are willing to pay high prices for the Drøbak sea urchin. Costs related to logistics and marketing are, however, uncertain, considering the sea urchin should still be fresh when served – for instance in Japan, transported all the way from Norway. The profitability of sea urchin harvest is also dependent on the time it takes for degraded kelp forests to reestablish.

Further reading

The Fram Centre is the short name for  FRAM – High North Research Centre for Climate and the Environment. The research centre is based in Tromsø and has more than twenty research institution members. In addition to the research conducted at the individual member institutions, the Fram Centre work on six flagship research programs, financed mainly by the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, but also by the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries, Ministry of Education and Research, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of these flagship programs is "Environmental impacts of industrial activity in the north (MIKON)", whose objective is to strengthen the knowledge base used by the authorities in effort to limit the “footprint”of industrial activity in the High North , and ensure that new industrial activity takes place within a responsible environmental framework.

ECOURCHIN is one of the MIKON projects, and benefits from cooperation with other projects in The Fram Centre. ”Effects of climate change on sea ice and coastal ecology in the north” is another flagship program, where NIVA researcher Hartvig Christie leads the project “Recovery of coastal kelp ecosystems – driven by climate change or predators?”

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