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Water Today Title April 14, 2024

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Pioneering aquaculture venture, Urchinomics is restoring ocean habitats
and creating sustainable food production on a global scale

Sea urchins collected from urchin barren grounds could be harvested and fed in aquaculture-based systems to increase their yields to commercial levels. If enough sea urchins are removed from the barren grounds over time and they are not allowed to replenish, then the ecosystem may return to a fleshy macroalgal dominated one, replete with all the associated fish and invertebrate species.” - Chris Pearce, PhD Research Scientist Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Commonly referred to as the “lungs of the ocean” because of their ability to sequester carbon, ocean kelp forests are responsible for a healthy ocean ecosystem. In many parts of the world, the release of unprecedented amounts of carbon into our air and sea; the cumulative impact of global warming; ocean acidification; and overfishing have created the perfect storm for the humble sea urchin to reproduce unhindered. The main menu for sea urchins? Kelp.

After overgrazing on the kelp forests, a near lifeless, empty, barren desert is left void of shelter and breeding grounds for fish. The now starving urchins draw down on their energy reserves stored in their roe sacs. With little or no roe, they become unattractive to predators...and humans.

Closeup of urchins attacking kelp –photo credit Chris Nelson (Urchinomics)

“By developing new economic incentives, we can remove overgrazing sea urchins and turn them into a luxury gourmet seafood
product, help restore kelp forests, encourage fish and marine biodiversity, sequester CO2 and create meaningful full-time jobs
in rural communities, whilst providing profitable opportunities for those communities and partners.” -- Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda

Turning an environmental challenge into an economic, ecological, and social opportunity.

Watch the video

Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda, Founder and CEO of Urchinomics, together with a diverse team, has developed a system to help kelp forest ecosystems heal by removing overgrazing sea urchins and turning them into a luxury gourmet seafood product. Uni-- the delicate meat inside the spiney shell-- a pricey delicacy that has long been a staple of Japanese and Italian cuisine is now being introduced to the rest of the world.

WATERTODAY learned more from Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda about Norwegian-based Urchinomics’ mission in recalibrating current urchin barrens to make them healthy balanced ecosystems again.

WT: How many urchins does it take to turn a kelp forest into an urchin barren?

Takeda: The general consensus is that more than 2 sea urchins per square meter is enough for the animals to “flip” a kelp forest into an urchin barren. For reference, California, Japan, and Norway on average have well over 20 sea urchins per square meter. Some places in Eastern Canada have over 500 sea urchins per square meter.

WT: If nothing is done, urchins will keep kelp forests barren for decades, centuries perhaps. What motivated you to do something?

Takeda: In 2012 I got to meet fishers from the Tsunami affected region of Eastern Japan. A Japanese delegation came to Norway to see how Norwegian technologies could help them rebuild their fisheries after the catastrophic losses they experience from the tsunami. When we met them, they told us not just about the loss of life, house, and boats, but also the loss of the predatory species that kept sea urchins in check. This resulted in an explosion of the sea urchin population, which then resulted in overgrazing of the precious kelp forests that made this region so productive. You lose the kelp, and you lose all your fish...so it was this reality that hit me.

It was then I thought...Norway has been researching sea urchin aquaculture technologies for decades. Given that Norway has experienced a somewhat similar ecological crisis in the past, I wonder if I too could use the technology and help the affected fishers. And so, from there, we started doing the research. In 2014 we did our first trial in Japan with surprisingly good success. Almost too good that we had to do it again in 2015, which also resulted in great success. The Norwegian Fisheries Minister at the time flew to our little village in Japan where we were doing these trials because it was, again, almost too good to be true.

From 2016-to 2020 we spent a tremendous amount of time getting the feed, land-based aquaculture systems, ancillary technologies, and operations right. And in 2020, we finally broke ground on the world’s first, ecologically restorative, land-based sea urchin ranch in Japan. In April 2021 we opened the facility, and it has been operating commercially since. We have 2 more ranches planned for Japan, as well as numerous pilot sites around the world. We now plan to scale up so that we can restore kelp forests and produce premium uni globally.

WT: Is Canada on the radar for a pilot?

Takeda: In Canada, we have been focusing primarily in Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Quebec, and British Columbia. The only reason why we are not focusing on Nova Scotia is that the marine heatwaves coming up from the U.S. are killing off the urchins and naturally restoring kelp forests, so we really have no need to engage there.

In Newfoundland, we have done two pilots so far, and hope to scale up commercially in the province by around this time next year. In New Brunswick, we have also done two smaller pilots, and are looking to scale up commercially there as well. In Quebec, we have been working closely with the Ekuanitshit First Nation (Mingan) to see how we could integrate urchin ranching into their community’s fishing activities. Finally in B.C., we have done lab-scale trials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans with some really promising success. We want to find a way to establish ourselves there too.

WT: Your Company’s action has been endorsed by the United Nations (UN) Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) aka Ocean Decade. In fact, you are one of three endorsed Decade Actions led by the private sector. What has this accolade meant to you and your team?

Takeda: For us, I think it is a strong validation of our ecologically restorative business model, and our goal to develop an investible and therefore scalable, commercial venture where the pursuit of profits necessarily drives ecological restoration and social development in coastal, rural communities. The keyword here though is “investible” ...as I believe solutions like this need to be financially viable in order to receive investment and scale globally. If irresponsible capitalism brought us to the brink – I believe that responsible capitalism can help pull us back from the edge and point us in the right direction.

A plate of ranched purple urchins Photo courtesy Urchinomics

The removed empty urchins from the barrens are re-homed into sea or land-based ranching facilities where they are fed nutritionally balanced plant-based natural feed to grow their roe. After 6-12 weeks the urchins become plump and full of roe for discerning foodies to enjoy.

WT: Your Team is extremely diverse, consisting of experts from many fields. What qualities were you looking for in assembling the team that would represent your belief in pulling us back from the edge?

Takeda: Given that we always knew we were going to be a global venture, I looked for the right kind of talent in the regions where I needed them most. As a result, we successfully hired a core team in Japan, North America, and Europe that are working to pilot and scale our operations in their respective regions. The common factor we have within my management team, partners, and investors, is their dedication to ecological restoration. Unsatisfied with just being sustainable, our team works to be a truly restorative venture, where the more we generate revenues, the better the environment becomes. The other factor I would say is our global nature. Everyone on our team is globally oriented, speaks multiple languages, has lived in different cultures, and is inherently better equipped to deal with the diversity we have on our team.

WT: It is a global intelligence network then?

Takeda: Urchinomics stands on the shoulders of giants. Our technologies, operational best practices, and know-how come from decades of research from various regional and national research institutes. From there we have piled on to that knowledge by collaborating with a global network of scientists, who have specialized in their areas of expertise to provide unique solutions, as well as insights on how our feeds and aquaculture systems perform with their local urchin species. Many of our research partners are part of our UN Ocean Decade Partnership...but there are many more.

WT: Can you describe the Urchinomics aquaculture model. How do you harvest the uni?

Takeda:  In short, we pay commercial divers or non-profit restoration divers to harvest empty, commercially valueless urchins and get them out of the water so that kelp forests have a chance to grow and recover. We then take those empty urchins and fatten them up in our land-based recirculating aquaculture systems for between 6-12 weeks. There are no growth hormones or antibiotics in our urchins or urchin feed. The feed is a natural, formulated diet derived from marine plants.

After fattening them up at our ranch, they are ready for market, where they fetch some of the highest prices in the world, especially now because there is a major shortage of urchin roe globally.

The urchins are harvested primarily by hand by divers; however, some regions like Norway allow for technologies to assist in scalable fishing and restoration. Normally, urchin fishing has a limited window, as urchins with commercially valuable roe in them are available only for a few months of the year. For us, however, as we want to remove empty urchins from the ocean floor to help kelp restoration, we can harvest year-round, and ranch them year-round.

Our aquaculture operations do not use any fresh water at all. We take in seawater, treat it, and then use it for our urchin ranching operations. Rather than dumping it out to sea again, we recycle the water, re-treat it, and re-use it over and over again to minimize our ecological footprint. In that sense, I believe, we do not tax fresh water resources like any other agriculture or aquaculture does around the world today.

WT: What is the vision moving forward?

Takeda: Our vision is to leverage market forces to scalably restore marine ecosystems. And we need to do it fast because it is increasingly clear that we do not have much time left over before irreversible damage puts us all on a crash course with the consequences of climate change. While it is an inherently riskier strategy, my team and my investors are constantly exploring ways to deploy our technology and our business model, and help contribute to kelp restoration around the world.


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