▲ Jeff Maassen collecting purple urchins.
Video: Shaun Wolfe for Bloomberg Green

Sea Urchin Ranchers Try to Stop a Delicacy From Killing the Oceans

Urchinomics says it can fight climate change by harvesting invasive urchins and fattening them up for restaurants.

On one of his last dive trips for sea urchins, Jeff Maassen dropped anchor off the backside of San Miguel, the most westerly and windswept of California’s Channel Islands. He squeezed his lanky 6-foot-1-inch frame into flippers, gloves, and a thick wetsuit, and jumped into the Pacific Ocean with a splash. 

Breathing through a hose connected to an air compressor pump aboard the boat, he used a rake-type tool to pluck the spiny creatures from the seafloor 30 feet down and guide them through the swell into large net bags. On that sunny day in late February, before the coronavirus pandemic laid waste to the restaurants that used to buy his catch, the waters were uncharacteristically calm. They were also, compared to decades past, virtually vacant. When Maassen began fishing in the 1980s, so many ribbons of giant kelp streamed up from below that they crowded the surface above. Now, vast stretches of seafloor have been overtaken by exploding populations of invasive purple urchins. The area is less liquid forest than submerged desert.  

▲ An urchin barren near San Miguel.
Video: Shaun Wolfe for Bloomberg Green

Scientists call these places urchin barrens. In addition to those in California, massive ones—home to billions of the animals—have replaced kelp forests off the coasts of Japan, Norway, Canada, and Australia. While an overabundance of urchins may sound at first like good news for fishermen such as Maassen, the paradox of urchin barrens is that too many compete for too little food. Crack one open and they’re practically empty, rendering them commercially and nutritionally worthless. Barrens aren’t just problematic because they strip countless marine species of their habitat and local economies of lucrative fisheries. They’re slow-motion ecological disasters that portend poorly for the fight against climate change.

It’s here that a start-up called Urchinomics sees opportunity. It pays Maassen and others to gather emaciated urchins from barrens, feeds them in shallow rectangular aquaculture tanks on land, then sells the fattened-up results to distributors and restaurants. There's a feel-good marketing pitch built in: An ecological invader transforms into one of the world’s most premium seafoods in as little as eight weeks. The more consumers eat, the fewer exist to kill off kelp forests, and the more proceeds Urchinomics devotes to restoration. 

At the helm is Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda, a Japan-born, Canada-raised resident of Norway who’s assembled a team of corporate investors, philanthropists, and scientists to turn his vision into a business. “I don’t want people to think we hate urchins. They have their role in the ecosystem—they’re incredible creatures—in manageable quantities,” Takeda says. “The real culprit is us. When you look at the three causes of urchin barrens, it’s overfishing of predatory species without thinking about the impact to the total ecosystem, pollution, and climate change. Those are all human activities.” Until now, capitalism failed to create the right incentives to clean up our mess, he says. “That’s where Urchinomics comes in.”  

▲ This Startup Is Restoring Oceans

Like starfish and sea cucumbers, sea urchins are echinoderms. They have hard, round skeletons covered in spines to ward off predators and tube feet they use to attach to surfaces, move, and detect light. They lack a single concentration of nerves—as in, they don’t have a brain—and can survive more than 24 hours out of water. They eat via a mouth on their underside, with jaws and teeth strong enough to chew through lead and rock; they poop via a duct on top.

Maassen holds a red urchin and a purple urchin on his boat.
Jeff Maassen holding a red urchins and a purple Urchins) on his boat in the Pacific Ocean near San Miguel. California, Channel Islands. February 21, 2020.
Photographer: Shaun Wolfe for Bloomberg Green

What’s eaten by people (in Japan, mostly, where it’s called uni) are the five gonads. In healthy, well-fed urchins, they look like plump, golden tongues and taste briny, creamy, and umami-rich. Enthusiasts generally consider green urchins from Hokkaido, Japan, as the best, due to the type of kelp (kombu) they eat there, followed by reds from California. In addition to being reproductive organs (the equivalent of ovaries and testes in mammals), the gonads store energy, as fat cells do in humans. One of the animal’s superpowers—enabling barrens to exist—is that urchins can survive for years eating not much at all, shrinking their gonads to as little as 1% of body weight, and then grow them rapidly, to 20% or more, upon finding ample food. 

When kelp forests disappear, the planet loses a crucial tool in the fight against climate change. Like trees on land, kelp captures and prevents the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon is in carbon dioxide, which traps heat within the earth’s ozone. The less kelp to sequester carbon, the warmer the planet. 

While kelp forests help fight climate change, they’re also its victim: Climate change is to blame for accelerating kelp loss worldwide in the past decade, says Mark Carr, a biologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. A marine heat wave in 2014, for example, helped wipe out more than 90% of Northern California’s kelp forests. “This is climate change in your backyard,” says Carr, “and it’s having a huge impact.”

Takeda learned about the idea of urchin ranching as climate savior in 2010. He and his wife relocated from Canada to her native Norway after he sold a company he had co-founded in Vancouver, which popularized matcha green tea in North America and supplied it to Coca-Cola, Estee Lauder and Jamba Juice. He began researching—intending to invest in—a company called Scan Aqua, which was trying to ranch barren urchins and restore kelp above the Arctic Circle. It soon became clear that Scan Aqua had underestimated how expensive and time-consuming it would be to execute the plan. Investors grew impatient. Bankruptcy followed.  

Portrait of Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda, Founder & CEO of Urchinomics, at the Bloomberg offices in New York City. March 10, 2020.
▲ Takeda in New York.
Photographer: Ryan Duffin for Bloomberg Green

Takeda landed at a private investment firm active in the fishing industry, which let him explore urchin ranching on the side in 2013. Four years later, Urchinomics became a formal entity and a large Dutch fishing company called Cornelis Vrolijk took a 70% equity stake, and Takeda the rest. By last year, Urchinomics had secured permits and property to operate ranches in Japan, Norway, and Canada; in August, it struck a deal to build on a former salmon and abalone farm in Bodega Bay, California. 

Takeda, 41, speaks five languages and has a background in marketing. He knows how to boil down a narrative and spin it deftly for a lay audience, making the impacts of Urchinomics’ beneficence sound simple: Remove urchins and voila: Kelp returns. In reality, it’s complicated and uncertain. Urchin removal and predator reestablishment are crucial steps in prompting kelp forests to “tip” back from being barren, but these are extremely expensive and unscalable without a consistent funding source. It’s been done only rarely and on a small scale. Many barrens are just too large for humans to fix. Even if urchin culling were enough, kelp beds may never fully regrow, due to ocean warming. (Kelps are cold water seaweeds that need nitrogen; warmer waters contain less of it.) The most fruitful restoration efforts, says Carr, prevent the loss of remaining forests, “because if we don’t have those forests producing spores, no matter how many urchins we remove, the kelp can’t recover.” 

One of the most important roles Urchinomics may play, Carr believes, is to help fisheries adapt to the new reality of warmer waters. California’s historically dominant red urchin fishery has collapsed amid kelp die-off. If Urchinomics can persuade diners to instead eat the now-overabundant purples, “you just shifted the industry’s response to this new future.” 

David Goldenberg, the executive director of the California Sea Urchin Commission, a marketing program that represents divers and processors, is skeptical that Urchinomics can profitably ranch enough urchins in order to make a meaningful impact on restoration. “I see it as a contribution to the marketing of urchins as a food source,” he says, “and a very insignificant contribution to the removal of the purples to the benefit of the environment.” 

Urchins remain a niche delicacy in North America: Maassen’s bounties from the waters surrounding the Channel Islands used to end up at fancy restaurants in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York. But the pandemic has devastated demand. Sales of California urchins were down 63% in the second quarter compared to last year, says Goldenberg; Maassen hasn’t gone urchin diving since hauling his boat to land in late March. Takeda claims to be unfazed. Urchinomics isn’t yet ready to supply the market, he says, making the present the least-worst time for a pandemic to have hit. He estimates it’ll be April at the earliest before the Bodega Bay ranch has urchins fat enough to sell. 

▲ Maassen surfacing with a bag of purple urchins.
Video: Shaun Wolfe for Bloomberg Green

In Japan, uni has long been a staple. The pandemic hasn’t hit as hard, restaurants are open, and people eat uni at home. Japan has always been Urchinomics’ primary focus, in part for that persistent demand; Takeda says the pandemic has made it more so. Operations are furthest along there: The company has run a ranch in the southern prefecture of Oita since December 2019 and conducted ranching trials at eight other sites. 

Globally, the urchin market consists almost entirely of “processed” uni, the gonads removed from the shell and packaged onto trays for chefs to plop onto sushi rice or mix into sauces. One of Urchinomics’ biggest challenges is self-imposed: trying to create a market for “shell-on” urchins, when the gonads are served still inside the spiny skeleton. Takeda sees shell-ons as a way to differentiate, generating curiosity and educating consumers about the origins of what they eat.

Jeff Maassen using a lift bag towards his boat so he can use his crane to get the urchins (a bag of red urchins and a bag of purple urchins) onto the boat in the Pacific Ocean near San Miguel. California, Channel Islands. February 21, 2020.
▲ Maassen lifting urchins onto his boat.
Renee Angwin (SDSU Lab Manager) counting the urchins to put into their baskets that go into the holding tanks/raceways at San Diego State University. California. February 21, 2020.
▲ Urchins being prepared for aquaculture tanks.
Photographer: Shaun Wolfe for Bloomberg Green

The ranching component allows Urchinomics to guarantee consistency in yield and flavor. “In the wild, 20% of urchins have Grade-A roe,” Takeda says, using a more palatable term for gonads. “We’re getting rid of that uncertainty—19 out of 20 are perfect.” Urchin prices are controlled by six Japanese companies, Takeda says. “The moment ranching can yield an alternative supply, things change.”  

Urchinomics has spent most of its existence in research and development mode. Even in Japan, the company has so far mostly given away, not sold, the urchins it has fattened up. That finally began to change in July, when a restaurant chain on the southern island of Kyushu placed 20 of Takeda’s still-living urchins into its onsite aquariums and onto the menu. The first shipment sold out in a day, Takeda says, and the chain ended up buying 130 more. “Mainstream consumers were willing to pay 1,340 yen ($12.70) for one urchin—the same amount they would typically spend on a whole lunch,” he says. It was validation that “we can present to investors to show we can do what we say we can.”

Efforts since the 1970s to make urchin aquaculture profitable have largely failed, in part because costs are high and the characteristics of the animals make it hard to scale, says Stephen Eddy, a biologist who’s run urchin ranching trials and directs the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research. “It could be done, but I think it's going to be extremely challenging,” he says of Urchinomics. “Whoever the investors are, are going to have to have a long-term view and be extremely patient.”  

▲ A purple urchin Maassen caught.
Video: Shaun Wolfe for Bloomberg Green

Takeda says he’s found those types. He’s financed operations so far with €2 million ($2.4 million) in equity and €2.4 million in debt from Cornelis Vrolijk. He’s now seeking to raise an additional €5 million from impact investors, and working with philanthropies to set up non-profit operations to boost restoration.

That financing structure, Takeda argues, will enable Urchinomics to succeed where other ranching ventures have failed. It helps that the company isn’t raising urchins from hatchlings, which can take years. The feed is a special formulation developed by a Norwegian government research institute and perfected by a division of Mitsubishi. Artificial intelligence technology being developed with Japanese tech giant NTT East should reduce the need for labor. And researchers at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology are working on a diver-steered “urchin vacuum” to increase efficiency. 

Michael F. Piehler, who directs the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Environment, says Urchinomics will provide a net benefit, even if it doesn’t end up saving the world. “Is it perfect? Maybe not. Is it worth a shot? Absolutely,” he says. Ecological restoration has historically been a public sector undertaking. Urchinomics, he says, “may inspire others to see the potential for profitability in businesses that have a byproduct or co-benefit of environmental enhancement.”

In a sense, ultimate victory for Urchinomics would be to put itself out of business. Eliminating urchin barrens would mean no more areas to harvest. That won’t happen anytime soon, if ever, given the global scale of the problem. “But if we can give nature a helping hand where it needs it most,” Takeda says, “we think we have a chance.”

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