Newfoundland & Labrador

5 reasons it's time for Newfoundlanders to seriously consider urchin farming

These spiky invertebrates are 'potentially very lucrative' for the province

August 12, 2018

A sea urchin in Twillingate.

You might know them as ozzy eggs, but maybe they'd be better referred to as a cash cow.

Patrick Gagnon, an associate professor at Memorial University, says Newfoundlanders should consider sea urchin farming as a small-business idea.

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There's so many urchins in Newfoundland, it's actually unbelievable. - Patrick Gagnon

"I think it's great for the province because, you know, fisheries are not doing so well," said Gagnon,

"We're hoping this could stimulate the economy in the province by allowing people to start a small business."

Recently, Gagnon proposed a trial urchin farming project to the Baie Verte community. His funding request was approved and the project is set to start in September. 

Gagnon outlined his reasons for the strong potential of urchin farming in Newfoundland with CBC Radio's The Broadcast.

1. New feed ensures high yield and quality taste

The roe grown in the Gagnon lab has the right colour, texture and taste. (Julie Jacques)

To farm marketable urchins, Gagnon and his collaborators in Newfoundland (Green Seafoods), Norway (Urchinomics) and Quebec (Pêcheries Shipek SEC) had to design a special urchin feed with the balanced components necessary for quality production.

Just six to seven weeks of feeding is enough to have an urchin that's suitable for market. - Patrick Gagnon

"What we're trying to do is to use a special feed that was formulated in Norway, and we're trying to see if that feed can work with the urchin species we have here in Newfoundland, which is the green sea urchin," said Gagnon.

Early versions of the feed produced adequate yields, but other important palatability factors were missing. The most recent version of the feed, however, satisfied Gagnon's Norwegian collaborators on all fronts.

"What they're looking for on the market is not only the taste, they're looking for the right colour and the right texture as well, so it seems that the three parameters were there," said Gagnon.

Gagnon explained that because there's no way to tell the quality of urchin until it's broken open, harvesting urchins from the wild is a "roll of the dice." 

By farming the urchins with the feed, Gagnon said it's much easier to guarantee the yield and quality, and it "allows for very steady production."

2. Farming allows for a year-round harvest

Sea urchins typically contain five gonads, which range in colour from light yellow to deep orange depending on the variety. (Philippe Grenier/CBC)

In the wild, the urchin harvest depends on seasonality of gonad maturation — the urchin's reproductive organ is the edible part — which can be difficult for harvesting.

"For the [urchin] fishery there's only a limited period of time during which you can go in the field and collect the urchins. And that period is usually late fall, so that's when wind picks up and conditions at sea don't get too good for diving," said Gagnon.

We're kind of looking at what's the best option, or actually develop a portfolio of different approaches to do it. - Patrick Gagnon

However, by keeping the urchins contained in one location and fed with the urchin feed, farming can be a year-round process with a fast turnaround.

"The beauty with the feed we're using is you could start production at any time in the year," said Gagnon.

"Just six to seven weeks of feeding is enough to have an urchin that's suitable for market."

3. Urchins already love Newfoundland

Green sea urchins produce the best roe and are abundant on the rocky shores of Newfoundland. (Julie Jacques)

Green sea urchins are already highly abundant on the rocky shores of Newfoundland.

"They live on hard surfaces, bedrock basically, and as you know we've got lots of that," said Gagnon.

Patrick Gagnon is an associate professor at Memorial University, based out of the Ocean Science Centre.

"There's so many urchins in Newfoundland, it's actually unbelievable."

Urchins are also common in provinces further south, like Nova Scotia, but the warmer waters increase the risk of disease.

"The nice thing with Newfoundland is that we don't see those mass mortalities in urchin populations, which they see in Nova Scotia," he said. 

"And we don't see that here because the water is cold enough to prevent those pathogens coming from offshore to get in our water during the summer time."

Because of that, farming urchins doesn't run the same risk of increased disease as in some other aquaculture operations, he said.

"The only difference [from wild urchins] would be to take the urchins from the sea bed and raise them a few metres above the bottom in those cages. So I'm not concerned that this could, you know, cause any spread of disease."

4. Urchins are a highly prized delicacy on the Asian market

Most of the sea urchin roe harvested in this province ends up as sushi in Japan.

Urchin roe, or "uni" in Japanese, is a culinary term for the reproductive gonads of the urchin.

The roe is often eaten raw or as a topping for sushi, or used in sauces. Although urchin roe is not yet a popular ingredient in this province, Gagnon said the urchins can be exported to larger cities such as Montreal and Toronto, or sent to Maine to be put on the Asian market.

I've heard about years where we've had $120 a kilo of roe in urchin, so it's potentially very lucrative. - Patrick Gagnon

The price of urchins fluctuates, he said, but it can peak quite high.

"I've heard about years where we've had $120 a kilo of roe in urchin, so it's potentially very lucrative," said Gagnon.

He said that these peaks are usually around Christmas, and at other times the price can be closer to $20-30 per kilogram.

5. There is potential for cheap storage

The spiral troughs are filled with water, which flows from the top to the bottom, ensuring the urchins get enough oxygen. (Patrick Gagnon)

So far, Gagnon and his team have focused on land-based urchin farming. Most recently, they've grown urchins in a spiral artificial river where oxygen-rich water flows over the urchins via gravity. However, as with all land-based aquaculture, it's more expensive.

"If you do that in a land-based facility, there's costs to that, right, so you have to heat your building and you have to run your water, so you need pumps and so on," he said.

In the future, Gagnon will place crates with urchins out in the ocean, dramatically reducing storage costs but requiring frequent trips out to sea. 

But different options may be suited to different harvesters, and to Gagnon it's about providing the choice.

"We're kind of looking at what's the best option, or actually develop a portfolio of different approaches to do it," he said.

"So if someone wants to start a business with urchins and that feed, they can examine their options and see if it's better for them to go with the field or the land-based approach."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Evgeni Matveev
Contributor

Evgeni Matveev is a graduate student at Memorial University, and a contributor to CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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