Q&A: The future of sea urchin culture

A new land-based technology for sea urchin-farming targets supply gaps in a global market hit hard by overfishing. Claiming to be the world’s first and only commercial, land-based system for culturing sea urchins valued for their delicate roe, Gourmet Marine’s UrchinPlatter System was developed at the University of Cork (UCC) in Ireland.

Dr. Gerry Mouzakitis, the UCC scientist behind the eight-year research on farming sea urchins, actually left the university in 2009 to launch Gourmet Marine and to market the new system. With the world’s USD 200 million sea urchin market in sight, urchins are valued for their roe, with sushi representing the biggest opportunity, Mouzakitis, CEO of Gourmet Marine, explained to SeafoodSource in a recent interview.

Partos: What is the state of today’s global sea urchin market?

Mouzakitis: The FAO valued the market at about USD 200 million in 2007, with Japan importing about 97 percent of global exported sea urchins. There are also internal markets, in Canada and the U.S., for example, with sushi driving up demand for the sea urchin roe.

Over-harvesting and overfishing have severely impacted sea urchin numbers. In 1995, the global market consumed 116,000 metric tons of sea urchin. This figure feel dramatically to 78,000 metric tons in 2007 [according to the Food and Agriculture Organization], which means 38,000 metric tons were missing from the market in 2007, let alone today. For example, Irish exports crashed from 1,000 metric tons in 1996 to perhaps 1 to 2 metric tons today. And in Chile, production plummeted by almost 40 percent due to overfishing of wild stocks. We are convinced that sea urchin aquaculture has the potential to make up for the shortfall in today’s market.

There also market opportunities in value-added products for sea urchin roe. Today there are very few of these products on the market. It’s important that processors and harvesters are proactive and look toward sustainable means. After all, in order to maximize your profits, you have to make sure the business is sustainable.

Can you explain how the land-based technology works?

The new technology uses cages or Stacks™ within a raceway-type tank to culture sea urchins at a high stocking density. It can be used for both on-growing of juveniles to market size and enhancing the roe content of wild market-sized animals. We’re two to three times more intensive than any other land based system. The system uses a lot of water and has to be situated next to water. The technology is intensive, producing between 50 kilograms and 90 kilograms of sea urchins per cubic meter. Sea urchins are omnivores and they’ll eat anything, but we all care about what they taste like so we suggest they feed on local seaweed. We put in a blend of local seaweeds that gives the roe a complex taste profile.

Which markets are you targeting with the new technology?

The major sea urchin producing countries are Chile, Japan, the U.S., Canada, Russia and China. Chile is by far the largest producer, contributing about 45 percent of the global production by volume. So Chile is a target market for our new technology.

How are you breaking into the market?

We believe the way we’re trying to enter the market is novel. We want people to see the system working in their own countries. To this end we have developed a miniature model of the larger 7-meter-by-2-meter commercial mother system. The miniature system fits onto two pallets and can hold up to 100 kilograms of sea urchins. We’ve provided certain companies in sea urchin producing countries, notably Chile, with these mini systems so they can trial the system. We want people to taste the quality of the cultured roe from this system, so we encourage independent tastings once the roe in the mini-systems are ready. These tasting demonstrations are a major part of validating our system, we believe that the proof is in the pudding.

What are the major advantages of your UrchinPlatter System?

Firstly, in general there are two ways to farm the sea urchins. The first method is to buy-in juveniles that need to be between 6 to 9 months old before placing them in the system, and then grow them to market size, which takes about 18 months. The second method is enhancement. This is where sea urchins are harvested from the wild and then kept for about 12 weeks to be ‘fattened up’ in the system. Almost everybody we’ve spoken to is interested in enhancement.
There is no commercial harvesting of sea urchins, so in the sea urchin-producing countries the fishermen know that given a set number of sea urchins harvested from the wild they can produce 50 percent more roe through enhancement. They’re still using the wild stocks but they know they can produce more roe by not raising the inputs.

The second advantage to our system is that sea urchins are also seasonal products. Wild roe is really only marketable for a few months in the year. If you use enhancement you can supply the market year-round.

How much does the system cost?

Costs are often assessed on how long the payback period will last for the initial cost of the system. For our system it’s about three years.


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