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Sea urchin research taps into Japanese export market


Sharlene King
28 June 2017

A ground-breaking sea urchin aquaculture program, developed by researchers at Southern Cross University, will help tap into the lucrative Japanese export market, worth around $US200 million a year.

Associate Professor Symon Dworjanyn, based at the University’s National Marine Science Centre in Coffs Harbour, is leading the program, which is funded by the federal government’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

The three-year project is identifying ways to improve the production of commercial quantities of sea urchins. It will help develop a vibrant new Australian aquaculture industry that will supply the Asian sushi market.

Nationals Member for Cowper Luke Hartsuyker believes the research and innovation has the potential to grow our region.

“The team at Southern Cross University’s National Marine Science Centre is doing some really exciting work,” Mr Hartsuyker said.“With the potential for growth in this export market, improving efficiency and industry standards could mean a tangible benefit to our region in terms of job creation and the economic flow-on effect.

“I’m so pleased that Australian Government funds are being put to good use, by a well-qualified team, always looking to improve their methods.”

The team has had early success, sending its first shipment of baby sea urchins to Japan in July in a venture that is hoped will foster co-operation between the Australian and Japanese industries.

“Increasing demand and reduced supply from collapsing wild fisheries are creating opportunities for commercial sea urchin culture in Australia. The tropical sea urchin, Tripneustes gratilla, has great aquaculture potential as it is fast growing and native to both Australia and Japan,” Professor Dworjanyn said.

“The innovative technology we have developed here to produce baby sea urchins is world beating in its efficiency.  Sea urchin roe for sushi and even pasta dishes in Japan and other parts of Asia is a favourite, but as the wild fish stock is being depleted the price is going up about 10 per cent each year,” he said.

“The market is massive and this will create an unexpected and exciting link between Australian and Japanese aquaculture.”

The species being bred in Coffs Harbour is the same as the species that is native to the Japanese island of Okinawa, where the wild harvest is in the doldrums because of overfishing.

“There is a huge demand from domestic tourists visiting Okinawa, and also through the central Japanese fish market,” Professor Dworjanyn said.

Sea urchin gonads - ‘uni’ - are prized by chefs the world over for their rich and delicate flavour. In the Japanese market, ‘uni’ is a high value product. The current market value for live sea urchins is approximately $9 per individual, or up to $1000 per kilogram for ‘uni’.

“Australia has an excellent opportunity to take advantage of our native sea urchin, with access to high quality, warm water aquaculture sites and a clean green image,” said Professor Dworjanyn. 

“This is a great example of how research innovation, combined with Australia’s natural competitive advantages can open up a new potentially lucrative rural export industries.”