The sea has always provided our province with sustenance — both literally and financially. So as shrimp stocks and quotas wane this year, and market prices drop for many fish we rely on, it’s easy to panic. Luckily we have innovative local researchers like Dr. Pat Gagnon fishing for unexplored economic opportunities.

Gagnon is an associate professor of Marine Biology and Ecology at MUN, investigating what he hopes can diversify the range of seafood produced here and sold worldwide.

The green sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis) thrives in the shallow rocky marine habitats that line our island province, and the roe of these urchins is a culinary delicacy in many of the world’s best restaurants.

Best known as “uni,” urchin gonads have a sweet tang, balanced by a sea-saltiness, and is often slurped up raw like an oyster, or served in pasta dishes. The spiky sensations amounted to a 2.5 million dollar industry for Nova Scotia, but wild population levels have been decimated on account of global appetite.

Wild urchins play a vital role in our ocean ecosystems. For instance, by grazing on seaweed, they maintain different algal assemblages that host distinct suites of organisms. Urchins are also a food source for a variety of large fish, birds, and mammals. It’s a common sight in Newfoundland to see gulls fish them up at low tide, fly high into the sky, and drop the hard-shelled creatures like bombs so they burst open and spill their delectable roe.

Dr. Gagnon is working with industry partners to set up a sea urchin farming industry in NL that would provide foodies worldwide with something they can’t get enough of, literally. And being a farm, it should avoid the negative impact of over-harvesting wild sea urchins. The environmental impacts of field-based trials in Southeastern Newfoundland will begin by next year.

Dr. Gagnon’s partner is Green Seafoods Ltd., a local family-run company who’ve been farming atypical seafoods like whelk and sea cucumber for four generations now. What makes this study unique, is Dr. Gagnon’s vision for a special feed — think Popeye on Spinach.

The research project will “determine the suitability of a revolutionary feed on local green sea urchins. The feed is known for the quick production of large volumes of high-quality roe in other parts of the world, but has never been tested in a cold-water system like Newfoundland and Labrador’s.” A Norwegian company, who hold rights to the feed, is also a project partner.

The feed could bring urchin roe to a market-quality and quantity, in 12 weeks, with a simple infrastructure, which means, if successful, this kind of farming can be done year-round or as needed to fill gaps in a seafood producer’s schedule.

The project is enjoying support from a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Engage grant. These grants fund collaborations between a company with a problem or opportunity that a university researcher can help with. The first stage of the project is underway.