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Saving the Kelp Forest, One Dinner Plate at a Time

August 09, 2021

by Cari Ritzenthaler, PhD Candidate, Bowling Green State University

The frigid ocean waters off California’s coast are home to a unique and threatened ecosystem known as the kelp forest. Stretching towards the water’s surface and reaching lengths of almost 175 feet, kelp grows in large forests similar to those on land. This undersea forest is a vital home for sea otters, giant Pacific octopus, and leopard sharks in addition to many fish, but among the dark seafloor, a monster lurks. At about 4 inches wide and 2 inches tall, the purple sea urchin is a lean, mean, kelp-eating machine. Moving across the ocean floor like spiky lawnmowers, the purple sea urchin has quickly decimated much of California’s kelp forests leaving hundreds of species without protection or food. With a naturally balanced food web, purple sea urchins would cause far less mayhem. Unfortunately, the recent sea urchin population boom has been driven by extreme population declines in their natural predator, the sunflower starfish, due to a disease killing individuals.

Thankfully, a new solution is being explored that has the potential to delight foodies everywhere. Sea urchin is a highly prized dish in some countries, leading some to suggest it could become a delicacy in the United States as well. With high levels of fatty acids, protein, minerals, and vitamins, breaking into the tough exoskeleton is well worth it. Once inside the sea urchin's shell, the edible portion of the urchin is the gonads, also called Uni. The Uni can be prepared in multiple different ways, cooked and uncooked, and are most commonly used in sushi. The taste has been described as soft, creamy, and buttery with sweet and savory undertones.

Unfortunately, a single purple sea urchin yields very little Uni compared to the amount of work it takes to break through the exoskeleton, so they’re not very viable commercially, though some companies like Urchinomics are trying. Working with scientists and local non-profits, their goal is to commercialize sea urchin harvesting to bring back the kelp forest. Until Urchinomics perfects their fishery, California residents can obtain a fishing license to collect their own purple sea urchins thus getting involved in local conservation efforts and enjoying a delicious meal.