15th October

Sea urchins: the Asian delicacy

The European sea urchin or purple sea urchin can be found from Israel in the eastern Mediterranean to Ireland, and as far as Norway. © G Mouzakitis, UUC







Sea urchins seem certain to appear soon on the growing list of animal and plant species being farmed commercially by the Irish aquaculture industry, after they performed well in a new type of land-based rearing system designed by the Aquaculture and Fisheries Development Unit at University College Cork

This will be welcome news for Ireland’s tiny seaweed industry, which can expect to see the knock-on benefits from supplying the sea urchins with their preferred diet of high-quality native seaweeds.
Dr Gerry Mouzakitis, a former manager of the AFDU, told Inshore Ireland that the UP System  “had proven beyond doubt” that Paracentrotus lividus, a native sea urchin once plentiful in Irish coastal waters but now rare because of over-fishing “has enormous farming potential.”

He declined however to reveal any details of the UP System before it is protected by a world-wide patent due to be issued later this month.

Mouzakitis is confident however that within a decade, the new system will have revolutionised the farming of Paracentrotus lividus in Ireland and probably worldwide.

He speculated that Irish-farmed sea urchins are likely to be farmed − not only for sale in Japan − but also to supply local ranching and re-stocking programmes here at home in order to return the species to areas where it has been fished out completely.

Multi-purpose system
Mouzakitis stated that the UP System was versatile and could be used also to farm abalone (Inshore Ireland/August 2005) and other high-value shellfish species.

“I would describe the UP System as being Irish technology for a global market. It will have a worldwide application, and for that reason we have had to be secretive about it until it is fully protected by patent,” he explained.

After managing the AFDU from 2001, Mouzakitis stepped aside recently to focus on developing the commercial opportunities of the Up System, and to attract would-be investors.

“The proof of concept has been completed, and we have no worries about that. We know that the UP System works. We have moved beyond the laboratory phase, and we are already in the second phase, which will be all about showing that the technology will work on a commercial scale. We are now looking for expressions of interest from companies and individuals who want to be first to use the system to farm sea urchins commercially.”

Mouzakitis praised the Marine Institute for funding the four years of phase one. He also revealed that the €350,000 investment by Enterprise Ireland to help finance commercial development was a major vote of confidence in the overall concept.

Feed supply essential
Although optimistic for the future of sea urchin farming in Ireland, Mouzakitis is quick to point out that it will succeed only when there is a dependable feed supply in the form of quality seaweeds.

He disclosed that researchers from the AFDU in Cork and the Irish Seaweed Centre (ISC) in Galway have been working together to ensure that research relating to sea urchin and seaweed farming are synchronised  and developed in tandem.

He said that the Marine Institute was already considering a joint proposal from the two bodies to enable their respective research teams to work more closely on this and other related projects.  

“Potential abalone and sea urchin farmers must be convinced that a reliable supply of the right types of high-grade seaweeds will be available to feed their stocks. There is natural synergy therefore between the AFDU and the ISC as we try to develop certain projects together. We need the ISC to provide the right feeds, and if sea urchin and abalone aquaculture really takes off here, as I expect it will, seaweed farmers will be assured of a ready market for their produce.”

 According to Dr Gerry Mouzakitis, the UP System has some definite competitive advantages for Ireland:

•    The technology has been developed specifically for Irish conditions. This is not a technology developed elsewhere which then has to be adopted for use in Ireland. Put simply, the UP System will be immediately applicable here. That gives Irish sea urchin farmers a major competitive advantage. On the other hand, if the system is licensed to farmers in other countries, they will have to optimise and adopt it to suit their conditions.

•    We have been working on this system for three to four years now, and it’s proved to be quite effective in terms of growth rates. Growth rates from 1 to 1.2 mm a month are possible. As for roe content – which is the part that is eaten − when wild sea urchins with 5% gonad are kept for nine weeks, their roe content can increase by up to 87%.

•    There are almost no wild stocks of Paracentrotus lividus left in Ireland. In 1996 the natural population practically collapsed, and since then Ireland has produced between one and five tonnes a year through a ranching programme. Seed about 10 mm diameter is taken from a hatchery and placed in small bays and inlets and is harvested at market size. It’s important to remember also that we are talking about a native species of sea urchin – we will not even be changing strains. That’s crucial to understand.”



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