The Industry Corner: Urchinomics

Urchin barren in California, USA, by Urchinomics.

Urchin barren in California, USA. Photo by Urchinomics.

By Urchinomics

Urchinomics helps restore kelp forests by removing overgrazing sea urchins from urchin barrens, ranching them in proprietary aquaculture systems, and converting them into premium seafood. The urchin roe (“uni”) is then sold to top tier distributors, restaurants, and consumers globally. The company is currently operating in Norway, Japan, Canada, and the United States.

Turning Ecological Destruction into an Economic Opportunity

Climate change and overfishing of predatory species from the world’s oceans have allowed urchins to explode in population and overgraze kelp forests, turning the once highly productive ecosystems into desert-like barrens.

After destroying the kelp forests and collapsing its dependent food chain, urchins draw down on their energy reserves stored in their roe sacs and sit dormant. As a result of years of starvation, the urchins have little or no roe in them, making them unattractive for predators to eat or for humans to catch and consume the sea urchin roe, one of the world´s most exclusive seafood products also known as ‘Uni’.

Without intervention, urchins will occupy the space where once productive kelp forests stood, keep that space barren for decades or even centuries, and likely expand to and decimate surrounding kelp forests.

Urchinomics is a for-profit, self-sustaining solution to ignite the ecosystem restoration effort.

This innovative aquaculture company aims to turn these ecologically destructive sea urchins into high value seafood products that will be consistently supplied year-round. This in turn helps restore kelp forests, which supports greater marine biomass, biodiversity, and capacity to sequester atmospheric CO2, all while creating full time employment in rural, coastal communities around the world.

Science-Based Solutions

Urchinomics has spent years developing technology and knowledge in partnership with research organizations to produce market-leading uni. Utilizing integral research from Nofima – a leading Norwegian institute for applied research within the fields of fisheries, aquaculture, and food research – Urchinomics’ core technology is a special formulated feed made with sustainably harvested, umami rich kombu kelp (100% plant based, no hormones, antibiotics, or GMO).

In conjunction with research institutions around the world, Urchinomics has developed small footprint, land-based aquaculture systems and an urchin biology knowledge base that enables optimized operations. These operations have now been validated across all major commercial Northern Hemisphere urchin species and are ready for commercialization.

Restoration in Action

Urchinomics’ mission is to target coastlines most affected by kelp loss and ecosystem imbalance. These are the areas that have the highest densities of urchins and the most expansive urchin barrens. As you can see from this time lapse, once Mother Nature is given a helping hand, the kelp forest is able to bounce back within a few months.

Urchinomics is now ready to begin restoration activities at a large scale. The company recently launched its first commercial scale urchin ranch in Oita Prefecture, Japan and has ongoing pilot operations in Stavanger, Norway that have produced promising results. Additional active engagements in the United States, Canada, Japan, Norway, Australia, and Mexico will provide the economic incentives to drive kelp forest restoration worldwide.

In AquaVitae, Urchinomics participated in research focused on increasing echinoderm value chains and unlocking the potential of aquatic bioresources. With help from AquaVitae, the company further developed the sea urchin holding tanks and created 3 independent RAS systems in a pilot facility in Finnøy, Norway. Within these systems, Urchinomics is currently ranching barren sea urchins from Tromso. Nofima has been supporting these efforts with technical consulting and barren urchin harvesting for the trials.

The objective of these trials is to prove the viability of a business model focused on turning a biological pest into a premium seafood product while also improving biodiversity in the ecosystems the urchins are harvested from. This proof point will justify commercial scale expansion in the future.

This research is key to Urchinomics being able to create commercial value from a low trophic environmental nuisance that, if given the right conditions, can be sold for premium prices as a culinary delicacy.