Newfoundland fisherman attempting to farm sea urchins
Mark Sheppard is hoping the second time is a charm.
After a 10-year absence in dealing in sea urchins, Sheppard, the operations manager for Green Seafoods Ltd. in Winterton, Newfoundland, Canada, has applied for a research license that could lead to his company farming the curious delicacy.
“Sea urchin roe is supposed to be one of three main traditional Japanese sushi items,” he told SeafoodSource.
Sea urchins – which look something like a spiny paperweight – lack any discernable meat, but are prized for their roe, according to Sheppard.
“The market size for roe is huge. The market size for whole urchins is significant as well. I’ve been out with Asian customers and a live sea urchin was the finale to a big meal. Turn the bottom up, cut the bottom off, pull the guts out and then give (the roe) to the customer in the restaurant. The gut, meat, and shell are all garbage.”
Green Seafoods got out of the sea urchin business 10 years ago, as the traditional fishery is an expensive, labor-intensive, diver-based hand-harvest.
“It got to the point where it wasn’t viable anymore,” Sheppard said. “It wasn’t making any money, and it was too volatile. The risks were too much.”
But to make money, Sheppard is hoping to adapt the technology developed by Norway’s Urchinomics to feed sea urchins in a hatchery-like environment.
“Greens experimented with this 15 to 20 years ago. We fed urchins a lot of different stuff to try to bring the roe content up and nothing worked. We had either poor tasting roe or it was oily. There was always something wrong with it. There’s no problem to get them to eat, it’s a problem for them to taste good,” he said. “We propose to take barren wild urchins and feed them to bring the roe content up.”
Barren and roe-filled sea urchins can be identified in place by divers turning them over to check patterns on their underside. It helps that barren urchins tend to be in different places than the ones with roe. And since producers don’t want barren sea urchins, there is no competition for the catch.
“We want to buy barren urchins and feed them. The thought is we can get them up to 15 to 20 percent roe” – versus the eight percent in a wild urchin," he said. “The roe should taste perfect because it’s all based on the food we gave them.”
Sheppard's idea is to create a small hatchery in the Green Seafood plant.
“These guys are going into a tank and be fed. It’s like a pan with a bit of salt water running through it. I’m sure there are pitfalls that I’ll come across, but the set up is supposed to be simple. I’m going to do a few hundred pounds at a time and if it turns out well after two or three cycles then I’ll ramp it up quite quickly," he said.
Sheppard said he believes there’s an environmental benefit to fishing sea urchins.
“Urchins aren’t a full invasive species, but they’re considered a nuisance because they reduce the amount of kelp on the bottom,” he said. “They have a voracious appetite for kelp so they have reduced the size of kelp forests needed to grow other species, so taking urchins out of the water should leave the kelp to grow and other species to flourish.”
The next step is to get the proper permitting for a trial-run of Sheppard’s idea.
“I’m asking for is a research license to give this a commercial trial in the fall.”
Working with the Marine Institute in St. John’s he believes they can produce a marketable product in eight to 16 weeks. If he gets the green light, Sheppard is banking on Newfoundland’s proximity to Europe and weekly direct flights to make it his primary market for live sea urchins.