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Green gold

Mapping the value of N.L.'s untapped sea urchin population

By Dr. Mandy Rowsell

What comes to mind when you think about Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishery? Cod and shrimp, scallops and lobster, most likely.

Dr. Patrick Gagnon, a faculty member in the Department of Ocean Sciences, Faculty of Science, says there is great potential for another sea creature to help boost the province’s economy: the prickly green sea urchin.

As part of the Harris Centre’s Thriving Regions Partnership Process, Dr. Gagnon and his research team spent the past 18 months studying sea urchins in the Baie Verte Peninsula region.

Their project, titled Assessing Potential for Land-based Production of Green Sea Urchin Roe on the Baie Verte Peninsula, is the result of both the researcher’s extensive past work with urchins and an invitation from the region’s citizens to help them develop food security and advance their natural resource development: two of the priorities that came out of a community workshop held by the Harris Centre in Baie Verte in March 2018.

Now that the study is complete, Dr. Gagnon has created an online story map to guide interested parties through the entire experience. The goal is to help locals form businesses around sea urchin roe production. You can view the story map here.

Dr. Gagnon and a graduate student prepare to search for sea urchins
From left, Dr. Gagnon and a graduate student at work in Baie Verte.
Photo: Submitted

Learning from the locals

“This whole project was, for me, a little new — meeting with citizens and stakeholders in communities and trying to meet expectations in a way that I’ve never done before,” Dr. Gagnon said. “It’s not about presenting a scientific paper with all the objectivity that goes with it, but about sharing stories and learning from people to let them know about the potential in their region.”

Dr. Gagnon and his team spent just under a week exploring the coasts of four communities on the peninsula: Baie Verte, La Scie, Fleur de Lys and Seal Cove.

Using their vessel, dive gear and a customized camera system developed specifically for the project, they mapped the location and abundance of sea urchins and all other organisms they saw on the seabed over 12 kilometres of coastline.

Graduate student shows us the sea urchin roe
A graduate student shows the valuable orange roe inside the green sea urchins.
Photo: Submitted

The Baie Verte Peninsula project is an extension of Dr. Gagnon’s former research, which involved testing feed pellets from industry partners in Norway.

The feed helps the urchins produce more roe – a highly prized delicacy in Japanese, American and European markets.

Dr. Gagnon says the aims is to find out if the Baie Verte Peninsula communities can avail of this “great potential.”

“Our results show that the feed is working quite well with Newfoundland urchins, so the next step is facilities,” he said. “If someone wants to start a business with urchins, it’s relatively easy to do in St. John’s because there’s access to seawater and land-based facilities and a major airport to quickly ship live urchins and/or urchin roe to national and international markets.”

It’s a different story in rural communities, however, like those on the Baie Verte Peninsula.

Are there any fish plant owners who can potentially start a smaller production, they wonder? And can they use the technology the researchers are developing through this study and other studies?

“We can export the technology and know-how to rural Newfoundland to create jobs, and hopefully retain youth in those regions.”

Creating connections – and jobs

Dr. Gagnon says the research team found large populations of urchins in three of the four communities they visited.

“If the townspeople want to go commercial, they will need divers to get urchins,” he said. “You can’t use drags — provincial regulation says urchins have to be collected by hand. This is where jobs are created. Then they might need truckers to deliver the urchins and people to take care of urchins during the production process, so it can create quite a few different jobs.”

“It’s crucial — you want to establish a good relationship with people and show that you want to help them cope with problems they may have.” — Dr. Patrick Gagnon

Dr. Gagnon says that working in the area was “amazing.” He encourages researchers to get out into the community and find ways to make their research accessible to those outside the university.

He says that everywhere they went, numerous people would come by, line up their trucks and take turns to ask questions about the equipment and the work.

“This type of research helps bring confidence and cohesion between everyone,” he said. “It’s crucial — you want to establish a good relationship with people and show that you want to help them cope with problems they may have. That’s why it’s important when the scientists get out there to take time to meet with people. That’s going to put you in directions that are extremely rewarding in the end.”

Locals ask Gagnon's team questions
A graduate students talks to an interested townsperson who waited in line to speak with the researchers.
Photo: Submitted

Looking to the future

Now that the project is finished, Dr. Gagnon is encouraging all interested parties to check out the story map.

“It’s very visual and interactive,” he said. “Someone sitting in their living room in Baie Verte, or anywhere on the planet, can just open their laptop and get into the interactive map, see where the camera was dropped, see where the sea urchins are. They don’t just get information in a tabulated format – they actually see the images from which the data was extracted.”

Dr. Gagnon hopes that his research is just the beginning. He wants the communities know that, as they move forward with their plans for regional development, he isn’t going anywhere.

“I’m still on board and my students and I will help in any way we can.”

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