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Turning spiny marine organisms into economic opportunities


By Kelly Foss

A Memorial researcher is investigating a new opportunity he hopes will help diversify the range of seafood produced in Newfoundland and Labrador for worldwide distribution.

The green sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis) thrives in shallow rocky habitats along the coast of the province. The gonads of male and female urchins, also called roe, are a highly prized culinary delicacy in many parts of the world, including Asia.

New approach

A fishery entirely dependent on manually collecting these small, round and spiny animals from the wild developed in the province during the 1990s. However, success was, and still is, limited because of the highly variable quality and quantity of the roe harvested.

Now Dr. Pat Gagnon, an associate professor of marine biology and ecology at the Department of Ocean Sciences, Faculty of Science, is working with local and international industry partners on a new approach to consistent roe production, with the hope of creating an urchin farming industry in the province.

Green Seafoods Ltd., a leader in the aquaculture industry in Newfoundland and Labrador, is interested in learning more about the suitability of using a revolutionary feed on our local green sea urchins,” he explained.

“This feed is known for the quick production of large volumes of high-quality roe in other parts of the world.”

Urchin barrens
Green sea urchins roaming and covering themselves in an extensive urchin barrens in Flat Rock, N.L. Note the lack of fleshy seaweeds caused primarily by intensive urchin grazing.
Photo: Samantha Trueman

Cold-water trials

The global right holders for the feed is Kaston International AS, a Norwegian company operating under the venture name, Urchinomics. About a year ago, Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda, the company’s founder, got in touch with Dr. Gagnon for advice on running feed trials on urchin in natural habitats in Québec.

“The idea was to take special crates designed to hold the urchins and feed and put these offshore in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence,” said Dr. Gagnon.

“I am knowledgeable about the area they were interested in because I did my master’s and PhD research on green sea urchins there. As we talked about the feed trial in Québec, Brian started to float the idea of doing trials in Newfoundland, as well.”

The feed, which is currently in its 10th iteration, is the fruit of over 20 years of research conducted by Nofima, a Norwegian state-owned research institute. Urchinomics, in partnership with Mitsubishi, has since further formulated it into the exact composition that would make urchin gonads the right colour, taste and texture preferred in Asian markets.

Variations of this feed have been tested on a variety of species in Japan, British Columbia and California. However, no previous trials were in environments like Newfoundland and Labrador’s cold-water systems.

Dr. Pat Gagnon
Dr. Pat Gagnon
Photo: Nellie Cormier

The idea is that with the feed bringing urchin roe to a sufficient quality and quantity for market in only 12 weeks, and using minimal infrastructure, this kind of farming can be done year-round or as needed to fill gaps in a seafood producer’s schedule.

“Our group has been working hard over the last year to put together the right blend of people,” said Dr. Gagnon.

“We held a series of meetings in St. John’s in December to present our ideas to provincial, government and industry partners and stakeholders. Representatives from various provincial and federal research funding agencies, including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Research Development Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador (RDC), were also at the table.”

NSERC support

Following the meetings, Dr. Gagnon and Green Seafoods Ltd. put together an NSERC Engage proposal, which funds new research collaborations with industrial partners that applies a researcher’s expertise to address a company challenge.

He recently received word that NSERC will be supporting the proposed research.

“Information generated from this industry collaboration will be used by Green Seafoods Ltd. to examine the possibility of adding urchin roe to its production line.” — Dr. Pat Gagnon

Dr. Gagnon says he is thrilled NSERC is supporting this first step towards an “incredibly promising” opportunity for Newfoundland and Labrador. The funding will allow for an exploration of a variety of questions relating to land-based production of urchin roe.

“Specifically, the Engage project we have designed will examine in controlled laboratory conditions how water temperature affects urchin health and survival, roe quantity and quality and feed assimilation efficiency as a first step to determining if the feed can support steady commercial roe production in this province,” he said.

“Urchins at two different stages of their life cycle — before and after natural spawning — will be examined to help identify best practices. Information generated from this industry collaboration will be used by Green Seafoods Ltd. to examine the possibility of adding urchin roe to its production line to offer a competitive product on international markets when needed.”

More research required

The first stage of the project has already begun in the Dr. Joe Brown Aquatic Research Building at the Ocean Sciences Centre in Logy Bay.

The team is now talking to other industry partners and looking for additional funding from various provincial and federal programs to address further questions relating to both land- and field-based production of urchin roe, environmental sustainability and socio-economic development opportunities for the province.

Experimental urchin feeding set-up
An experimental setup at the Ocean Sciences Centre is being used to investigate feed performance on green sea urchins from Southeastern N.L. as part of a new NSERC Engage research partnership between Dr. Gagnon and Green Seafoods Ltd. of Winterton, N.L.
Photo: Anne P. St-Pierre

Dr. Gagnon says the group has “tons of ideas” and is meeting again in St. John’s soon to discuss the way forward.

“One of my roles as the lead scientist for our growing consortium is to make sure there is a sustainable balance between creating jobs and money for the province, and preserving the ecological integrity of the systems from which urchins are collected for farming,” he said.

“I am excited to be a part of this dynamic team of collaborators and have the opportunity to further contribute my knowledge and expertise in studying natural cycles in seabed communities in Eastern Canada.”

Finding the balance

This background will be particularly useful as Dr. Gagnon and his collaborators begin studying the environmental impacts of semi-commercial, field-based trials in Southeastern Newfoundland, hopefully within the next year.

“Urchins play a key role in maintaining the dynamic equilibrium of rocky subtidal communities in the cold-marine systems of Newfoundland and Labrador,” he explained.

“Through grazing, they maintain what is called the urchin barren community state, which basically translates into areas of seabed where kelp and other fleshy seaweeds could potentially grow, but don’t because urchins there are so abundant and voracious that they easily wipe out that vegetation and prevent its re-establishment.”

While kelp assemblages provide habitat and promote biodiversity, Dr. Gagnon says a number of species depend on urchin barrens, including the urchins themselves. Their job will be to ensure they keep that balance, while the province’s social and economic landscapes benefit from it.

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