The Australian Senate has released a report advocating for a strategic approach to mitigate the ecological impact of the long-spined sea urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii). The New South Wales native marine species threaten the biodiverse marine habitats along Australia’s southeastern coastline.
The inquiry, entitled “The Win-win under our oceans: Climate-related marine invasive species report,” underscores the expansion of the long-spined sea urchin, propelled by warming ocean temperatures and altered currents — a tangible manifestation of climate change.
These sea urchins, often referred to as “Centro,” have ventured over 650 km beyond their traditional habitats, reaching eastern Victoria and south to Tasmania, and have recently been spotted in New Zealand waters.
The inquiry tasked with developing a national approach to tackle the threats to marine ecosystems in southeastern Australia has called for an AU$55 million (around US$35.8 million) investment over five years.
Transforming urchin barrens into fisheries
Long-spined sea urchins in Australia have caused damage to reefs and invaded Victorian and Tasmanian waters, transforming once-healthy marine environments into “urchin barrens.”
To combat the destruction of kelp forests by urchins, a plan was proposed last year to convert them into farm fertilizer, which will also benefit Australia’s fisheries.
The new report suggests the establishment of a viable national fishery for long-spined sea urchins to alleviate environmental pressures, create jobs and contribute to a sustainable “restoration economy.”
Recommendations also include fostering an economically and ecologically sustainable Centro fishery, promoting employment in urchin harvesting and processing and expanding research and policy coordination across jurisdictions.
Furthermore, the report emphasizes the importance of international and domestic market development for urchin products.
Global demand for culinary delights
Meanwhile, demand for sea urchins is growing in Australia. Asia remains the dominant consumer of sea urchin gonads, enjoying nearly 80-90% of the worldwide supply. Sea urchin is a culinary delicacy in Japan, China and South Korea, appearing in many traditional dishes.
In Japan, the buttery delicacy is savored in its raw form or as a sushi topping, while Chinese cuisine features the creamy urchin in hot pots or steamed with egg and tofu. Korean bibimbap has also evolved to include this marine ingredient, adding a delicate touch to the traditional rice dish.
In Europe, the burgeoning interest in sea urchin delicacies is led by Italy, where dishes such as “Spaghetti ai ricci di mare” are known as a Sicilian culinary classic.
However, environmental concerns have led to a proactive fishing ban in Sardinia to protect the depleting sea urchin populations. Last year, officials in Sardinia imposed a three-year ban on fishing for sea urchins to preserve depleted stocks.
According to the local government, this closure aims to allow the stocks to recover, as sea urchin has been depleted due to excessive fishing in recent years. If over-exploitation continues, it could lead to the collapse of the resource and the commercial extinction of the species.
By Sichong Wang
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