FRANKLIN — They don’t have horns or shaggy tails but, like Black Angus cattle, green sea urchins may be a candidate for ranching — sea ranching.
Scientists at the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research (CCAR) are working with several commercial partners to learn whether it can be practical, and profitable, to apply aquaculture techniques to raising the spiny critters either on the ocean bottom or on land. Sushi lovers prize the urchin’s edible gonads, know as “uni” in Japan. Fresh uni currently sells for about $152.50 per kilo, just under $70 per pound. Last year, during the peak demand season in Japan, the primary market for uni, the dock price of urchins climbed above $5 per pound.
That kind of value, and the depredation of wild urchins in Maine waters, primarily through overfishing, makes it worthwhile to see whether it is possible to raise urchins on a commercial scale.
Over the past few years, CCAR station biologist Steve Eddy and director Nick Brown have developed a project that allows them to spawn urchins throughout the year and raise more than 300,000 tiny seed urchins annually. Some of those urchins remain at the facility, where Eddy and graduate student Pamelia Fraungruber are studying whether it is economically feasible to raise urchins to harvest size in a recirculating tank system. Most of the tiny urchins, though, are destined for experimental growout sites off the coast.
“Steve is frantically trying to spawn urchins,” Brown said. “The goal is a half-million.”
Spawning that many urchins “would be challenging,” Eddy said.
For more maritime news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.