Sea urchins are overwhelming parts of the ocean. Could turning them into sushi be the solution?


(Riccardo Bergamini, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Charlotte Edmond, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Sea urchin populations have proliferated due to marine ecosystems being out of sync.
  • They are destroying kelp forests, leaving large swathes of barren ocean.
  • These kelp forests form part of a crucial carbon sink that helps in our battle against climate change.
  • One company is collecting them and farming them for sale as a delicacy in high-end restaurants.

Spiky, voracious and multiplying at an alarming rate, sea urchins are destroying marine ecosystems around the world. The solution? Eat them, according to one company.

Populations of purple sea urchins in particular – a hardy kelp-eating species – have exploded in recent years as an out-of-sync marine ecosystem has failed to keep them in check.

Munching their way through kelp forests from California to Norway, urchins leave vast expanses of desolate ocean floor – known as urchin barrens – in their wake. Not only are these kelp forests an important home for marine life, they are also crucial in our battle against climate change, capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

Urchinomics wants to turn this environmental challenge into an opportunity. By gathering urchins from the seabed and feeding them with sustainably harvested seaweed, founder Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda believes he can create a flavour-packed product that high-end restaurants will buy. Urchin roe has a rich savoury flavour and is seen as a delicacy, often served as sushi.

Once an area is cleared of urchins, rapidly growing kelp forests can return in as little as three months.

A vanishing ecosystem

One study estimates that plagues of purple sea urchins have caused a 90% reduction in a particular variety bull kelp – along a 350 kilometre stretch of California coastline. This has in turn triggered the rapid decline of the local red abalone – a type of sea snail – and red sea urchin populations, both of which had multimillion-dollar fishing industries attached to them.

The problem is once sea urchins have run out of food to eat they can effectively go into stasis, surviving for years without eating, and so urchin barrens can last for years. But these starved urchins shrivel up inside their shells and have no economic value for food.

So-called urchin “ranching” may provide a solution by giving an economic incentive to remove the destructive creatures. But to have a real impact, the urchins will have to be all but eradicated.

A number of factors are thought to have contributed to growing urchin populations around the world, including a dearth of predators because of disease among the sea star population. This, along with factors like warming sea waters and pollution, means kelp forests are now under threat worldwide. They are disappearing at different rates around the world, but globally the decline is around 2% a year.

Sea urchin environment
Kelp forests, a crucial carbon sink, are disappearing.
Image: Nature

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without healthy oceans – but they’re more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

This is important because studies have shown that kelp and seaweed may have a more crucial role to play in climate change than we previously thought. Saltwater plants, particularly mangroves and seagrasses, can take up much more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than land-based plants can. These “blue carbon” ecosystems not only take up carbon as the plants grow, but as leaves are shed and fall to the seabed this carbon is sequestered in the surrounding soil.

Blue Carbon ecosystems
Blue carbon ecosystems sequester and store large amounts of carbon in plants and the surrounding soil.
Image: The Blue Carbon Initiative

But despite these benefits, such ecosystems are under great threat. Tidal marshes and seagrass meadows and mangroves are all shrinking year-on-year. And in the past 50 years, it is estimated around 30-50% of mangroves have been lost globally.

Experts estimate that the carbon dioxide being released annually from degraded coastal ecosystems is equivalent to around a fifth of emissions from tropical deforestation globally.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

A Europe that Protects: Commission calls for decisive action on security priorities

How the diaspora is helping Venezuela’s migration crisis

GSMA Mobile 360 Series – Latin America, in association with The European Sting

1 million citizens try to create a new EU institution

Can free trade deliver cheaper renewable energy? Ask Mexico

On the first day of 2019, over 395,000 babies to be born worldwide: UNICEF

Qualcomm to be the next target of EU antitrust regulators? China might be the answer

Scoring for the environment: what Mathieu Flamini’s top-flight football career taught him about leadership

CEOs in these countries are more likely to go with their gut

Pandemic mental health: the urgency of self-care

Financing fossil fuels risks a repeat of the 2008 crash. Here’s why

Changing how we produce and consume: New Circular Economy Action Plan shows the way to a climate-neutral, competitive economy of empowered consumers

Your smartphone may know more about your mental health than you

Future Forces Forum: Prague will be hosting the most important project in the field of Defence and Security

Gig workers among the hardest hit by coronavirus pandemic

EU budget: Reinforcing Europe’s cultural and creative sectors

Stepped-up efforts needed to combat pneumonia; save nearly nine million children’s lives

COVID-19: What to know about the coronavirus pandemic on 6 April

Brexit and migration dominates the debate on October’s EU summit

EU-Turkey relations: Will Turkey manage to revive the EU accession process talks?

European Semester Autumn Package: Creating an economy that works for people and the planet

Burundi: Inclusive dialogue ‘only viable option’ for resolving country’s political crisis says, UN envoy

EU Youth Conference in Amsterdam: enabling young people to engage in a diverse, connected and inclusive Europe

Africa-Europe Alliance: first projects kicked off just three months after launch

Here are 4 of the most politically charged World Cup games ever played

This chart shows the total number of COVID-19 cases and recoveries so far

Supporting the recovery: MEPs adopt budget priorities for 2021

This is how the Western Balkans will become more innovative

EU out to conquer African Union summit

Nearly half a billion people can’t find decent work; unemployment set to rise: new UN labour report

With potential to boost profits by up to 20 per cent, a woman’s place is at work, says UN labour agency

Junior Enterprises as a solution for Youth Entrepreneurship

Spring 2019 Economic Forecast: Growth continues at a more moderate pace

UN chief condemns suspected Boko Haram attacks targeting Eid al-Fitr celebrations in Nigeria

IMF: The near-term outlook for the U.S. economy is one of strong growth and job creation

Capital Markets Union: Making it easier for insurers to invest in the real economy

Germany loves a strong euro; the new Fiscal Councils can deliver despite the Greek chaos and a wider questioning of austerity

Can Greece’s devastating economy deal with the migration crisis?

Do men and women really have different leadership styles?

We can build a carbon-neutral world by 2050. Here’s how

New identity cards deliver recognition and protection for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Indonesian tsunami death toll climbs over 400 as Government-led relief efforts are stepped up

These 11 EU states already meet their 2020 renewable energy targets

International Court of Justice orders Pakistan to review death penalty for Indian accused of spying

Mother of all mergers between Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram: EU Data Privacy restrictions against Facebook’s imperialistic plans

Antibiotics are contaminating the world’s rivers

New ECB boss quizzed for the first time by Economic Affairs Committee

MEPs back update of rail passenger rights across EU

Batteries included: how better storage can transform renewable energy

Venezuelan crisis: MEPs reaffirm their support for Juan Guaidó

‘Reasons to hope’ for sustainable peace in Central African Republic – UN Mission chief

Four million Syrian children have only known war since birth: UNICEF

Germany fears that Americans and Russians want to partition Europe again

Radio still a powerful worldwide tool for ‘dialogue, tolerance and peace’: Guterres

More women and girls needed in the sciences to solve world’s biggest challenges

Stronger partnerships with post-conflict countries needed to ensure ‘path towards durable peace’: UN chief

I accidentally went viral on TikTok. I learned we failed our youngest generation.

Code of Practice against disinformation: Commission calls on signatories to intensify their efforts

To retire at 65, American millennials need to save almost half their paycheck

New EU rules cut red tape for citizens living or working in another Member State as of tomorrow

More Stings?


Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s