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Cultivating Green Sea Urchins: An Emerging Industry in the American Northeast

Japan Asia

The University of Maine, University of Rhode Island, and University of New Hampshire are cooperating to pilot an aquaculture project aimed at promoting sea urchin cultivation and bolstering the stock of wild green sea urchins in the American northeast.

Sea urchin harvesting has a long history in the United States – the first recorded commercial sea urchin harvest dates to 1929. While domestic demand helped the sea urchin industry survive through to the 1970s, the market took off in the late 1980s when the demand for American sea urchins grew in Japan. When the market peaked in the early 1990s, it was valued at $40 million and trailed only the lobstering industry as the second largest fishery in Maine.

Sea urchin is a sought-after delicacy in Japan where it is known as uni. The sea urchin import industry is profitable; valued at $183 million in 2016. During the sea urchin fishing boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, American sea urchins were shipped primarily to Japan. However, unregulated fishing led to a collapse of the fishery in the mid-1990s. To keep up with demand, American fishermen looked for alternatives to wild harvest.

While Japanese demand for sea urchins has remained high, dwindling natural stocks and a lack of profitable aquaculture ventures has led to the United States underperforming in meeting demand and presents the opportunity to grow the United States’ market share in goods exports to Japan – already totaling $75 billion. Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island account for roughly 15 percent, or $742 million, of New England’s $4.9 billion in exports to Japan. The sea urchin aquaculture industry represents a lucrative commercial opportunity for American firms. Researchers from the University of Maine, University of New Hampshire, and the University of Rhode Island are collaborating on a new project to improve the yields of sea urchin hatcheries.

There is a precedent for such projects: the first experimental sea urchin hatchery opened in Lubec, Maine, in 1998 and was aimed at preserving depleted sea urchin stocks. Similar experimental hatcheries have focused on making sea urchin aquaculture profitable. Since 2009, the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research (CCAR) has grown juvenile sea urchins, to varying degrees of success. In 2021, however, a research grant from the Northeast Regional Aquaculture Center breathed new life into the project. The CCAR has been aiming to provide kelp and oyster farmers with live sea urchin stock at no cost in order to bolster commercial fishing prospects.

The Japanese sea urchin market provides American businesses with a lucrative opportunity. With these new developments, businesses on the northeast coast may be able to commit to fisheries preservation while developing a stronger, profitable industry.

Brendan Stewart is an East-West Center Young Professional Program Participant. He is a student in Georgetown University's Master of Science in Foreign Service program.