The Australian: Roe v weed: Urchinomics turns pest to gourmet gold

Marine scientists John Keane and Scott Ling, second from right, check two fishermen’s spiny catch on Tasmania’s east coast

Marine scientists John Keane and Scott Ling, second from right, check two fishermen’s spiny catch on Tasmania’s east coast

Originally Published in the The Australian, 16 Jan 2017

Along the coastlines of southeastern Australia, and far beyond, a silent, unstoppable menace is wreaking havoc, turning lifegiving undersea kelp forests into barren wastes.

Infestations of long-spined sea urchins along the coasts of NSW, Victoria and eastern Tasmania — linked to warming oceans and overfishing of predators — are mirrored globally, with similar “urchin barrens” in Norway, Japan and North America.

But the seemingly invincible spiky invader — which decimates species that rely on kelp for food or habitat, such as abalone and lobster — may finally have a fight on its hands.

A special marriage of science and entrepreneurship — to be trialled in Tasmania from next month and potentially expanded to mainland states — seeks to turn the pests into a lucrative industry, while saving and restoring kelp forests.

Urchins harvested from the barrens they’ve created will be suspended in baskets in oyster and mussel leases, and fattened for two or three months, until their roe — a delicacy, particularly in Asia — is ripe for eating.

“We will be looking to turn an ecological pest into one of the most valuable seafoods on the planet,” said Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda, founder of Norwegian-based Urchinomics, which has developed a system for farming wildcaught urchins.

Seasonal harvesting on along the east coast, subsidised by the abalone industry, has removed a million urchins since 2009, helped reduce the spread of barrens and allowed some recovery.

But on the barrens, once the kelp goes, urchins switch to eating algae and lose the condition and taste that make them worth eating. So harvesting in barren areas is uneconomical.

To overcome the problem, Urchinomics — assisted by Hobart’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) and local aquaculture companies — will take urchins from the barrens and fatten them on special feeding cages suspended from existing oyster or mussel lines.

Trials in Japan suggest this can turn an inferior urchin into a tableready feast within three months — a far shorter time-frame than farmed fin fish such as salmon, for much greater returns.

The best urchin roe — about 10 per cent of the creature — sells for up to $500 a kilo and farmed urchins are more consistent in quality. Mr Takeda said five Tasmanian aquaculture companies would host the trial. If farmed urchins pass the taste test, the concept could be expanded to Victoria and NSW.

“We will only fish and farm urchins from stocks that the scientists tell us are ripe for fishing,” he said.

“I don’t know of any other venture where the pursuit of profit actually improves the environment.”

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