By Sara Leigo*
The high priced roe or gonads of this species are considered to be a prized delicacy in Asian and Mediterranean countries, and also in Western Hemisphere countries such as Chile and Barbados. Japan is the largest consumer of sea urchins, followed by France and Korea, with a market price around USD$58 – 160 / kg.
The increased market demand for sea urchins coupled with favorable economic returns has resulted in uncontrolled and non-selective harvesting of these animals. Wild stocks of edible urchins are now seriously depleted because of over fishing.
In Europe, sea urchins stocks (Paracentrotus lividus) were overfished in the 1980´s to supply French markets, first in France and then in Ireland. Not surprisingly, the decrease in supply and continued demand have led to a great increase in the interest to culture these animals.
Other advantages which make it a potentially attractive activity are that sea urchin culture does not require regular monitoring and the survival rate is generally high, mainly due to few known parasitic diseases for these animals.
Great advances in the culture methods of sea urchins have been achieved in the last years. Currently the major obstacles for successful cultivation are indeed managerial, cultural, conservational and financial, rather than biological and ecological.
For the development of this industry, certain needs must be met, such as: juvenile supply; grow-out technology (environmentally friendly methods should reduce time to market); artificial diets to improve roe content and color without detriment to taste; artificial diets for larvae, juveniles and adults; and harvest protocols which positively influence shelf-life and product quality. The right time to harvest sea urchins is once they reach a diameter of 7 – 8 cm and before they spawn (ensuring urchins with large and firm gonads).
Recent efforts have been undertaken to produce these animals in Portugal. Ericeira, a seaside community on the western coast, hides beneath its seas one of the most urchin populated seafloors. Urchin harvesting carried out by the local population for internal consumption was a tradition for many years.
Urchiland, founded one year ago, is a company based in Ericeira and dedicated to the mass cultivation of sea urchins in captivity for subsequent sale. Luis Inácio, company manager, explains that Urchiland was established with the aim of reviving a tradition of local families, leveraging a major symbol of the region and offering everybody the opportunity to taste the delicious “Portuguese caviar.”
Corporate goals involve not only supply for the national market, but also for international markets such as Italian, French and Japanese consumers. Luis Inácio explained that the sea urchins they are producing belong to the species Paracentrotus lividus, an animal more rich and intense in flavor, which makes it the most desired by true lovers of this delicacy.
Sara Leigo has a degree in Marine Biology and Biotechnology and a Master in Aquaculture and Fisheries. She works at Necton, a Portuguese company specialised in the culture and commercialization of microalgae which is focused in several applications, mainly in specialty feeds for aquaculture (www.phytobloom.com). She has extensive experience in barramundi, Dover Sole and turbot production.