In search of urchins

Baie Verte Penin­sula be­ing tested for sea urchin farm­ing pi­lot project

The Central Voice - - Front Page - BY ADAM RAN­DELL

With the wind hav­ing died out long enough to calm the wa­ters Oct. 23, a re­search ves­sel rocks gen­tly on the lops along the shal­low wa­ters of Baie Verte’s har­bour.

Two scuba divers – Me­mo­rial Univer­sity New­found­land (MUN) as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Pa­trick Gagnon and stu­dent Lo­gan Zein­ert – are pre­par­ing to make their de­scent into the chilly wa­ters be­low.

While the town has found pros­per­ity min­ing its land re­sources, Gagnon be­lieves there’s an­other po­ten­tial for­tune in the wa­ters be­low: green sea urchins. The spiny crea­tures’ roe – spawn – can fetch more than $150 U.S. per kilo­gram. His aim is to de­velop a farm-based fish­ery, which can be on land, or po­ten­tially on the wa­ter through the use of crates.

Re­search

But this was no spur of the mo­ment idea for Gagnon. He has been work­ing on this project for the past three years, since his Nor­way part­ners reached out about test­ing a feed de­vel­oped to bulk up urchin roe for mar­kets in Asia.

Gagnon car­ried out the re­search at MUN’s Ocean Sci­ences Cen­tre and got pos­i­tive re­sults.

“Af­ter four weeks, it was enough to bring the roe to the stan­dards we are look­ing for,” he said.

But the first round of test­ing pro­duced a bit­ter tast­ing prod­uct and the colour wasn’t as vi­brant as de­sired.

“Af­ter my part­ners im­proved the for­mula, it im­proved taste and colour sig­nif­i­cantly,” he said.

With a for­mula that works, al­though it still needs a lit­tle fine tun­ing, and af­ter get­ting a trial farm­ing project ap­proved, Gagnon didn’t want to de­lay progress any fur­ther.

Po­ten­tial

“We want to ex­port our knowhow to ru­ral re­gions, be­cause the idea is that it will hope­fully lead to busi­ness start-ups,” he said. “Hope­fully it can stim­u­late the econ­omy for ru­ral re­gions, which we know have seen a down­turn over the years.”

Should an urchin pro­duc­tion start, Gagnon stated, it could lead to land-based pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties, which would need divers to re­trieve the species, plant work­ers to grow urchins, and driv­ers for ship­ment to air­ports.

Tak­ing stock

But the aim of the Oct. 23 trip was to quan­tify biomass to scout po­ten­tial pro­duc­tion sites.

“If you want to start a pro­duc­tion, the first thing is you want to make sure you have ac­cess to urchin,” he said.

Two ap­proaches were used for the mis­sion, cam­era surveil­lance and scuba div­ing.

The cam­era pro­vided some in­di­ca­tion of what was hap­pen­ing on the bot­tom, how­ever, Gagnon wanted a first-hand look. A quick spit pol­ish of the googles to pre­vent fog­ging brings a quick joke be­tween the divers about how classy the job can be, but it quickly be­comes all busi­ness again. With their gear in place, the two raise their hands to their breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tus and fall back­wards into sixde­gree Cel­sius wa­ter.

They stay above wa­ter just long enough to ad­just their equip­ment be­fore dip­ping be­low the sur­face in search of urchins. Mean­while MUN stu­dent Sean Hacker Teper moves the ves­sel out of harm’s way, watch­ing the divers’ bub­bles rise from the sur­face.

The bub­bles are a good sign. It’s when he can’t see them the worry starts, as it could likely mean trou­ble for the divers. But af­ter just seven min­utes there’s a breach at the sur­face, and two sacks – with ap­prox­i­mately 80 sea urchins – have been filled.

It was much bet­ter than Gagnon was ex­pect­ing, as they had scouted the area ear­lier through video surveil­lance, had shown poor re­sults. He sur­mises that on screen the urchins had cam­ou­flaged with the sea bed’s rocks.

Af­ter re­mov­ing his gear, in­clud­ing some 60 pounds in weights, Gagnon is back on the ves­sel to in­spect the bounty.

He takes out a knife, pro­ceeds to cut through the spiny layer to re­veal the roe, which is pro­duced by both the male and the fe­male.

A quick in­spec­tion re­veals

it’s a male, as it has a whiter, milkier tex­ture, which isn’t as pop­u­lar as fe­male roe.

Over­all, the first dive was a suc­cess and they plan to test four other sites along the Baie Verte Penin­sula be­fore mak­ing any fi­nal de­ci­sions on a lo­ca­tion.

En­thu­si­asm

At the wharf, there’s lo­cal en­thu­si­asm. Brothers Bern and Ron Barker were vis­it­ing with the re­search team. They had spo­ken ear­lier about pos­si­ble lo­ca­tions.

Some 20 years back, Bern es­ti­mates, Baie Verte was har­vest­ing and pro­cess­ing sea urchins.

“It was done on a ba­sic level, but it was done here,” he said.

While he has long re­tired from the fish­ery, Bern was ex­cited about the po­ten­tial.

“There’s still a few in­shore fish­er­men in the area, so if it’s prof­itable and a fish­ery can be made of it, let’s go for it,” he said.

ADAM RAN­DELL — THE CEN­TRAL VOICE

MUN as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Pa­trick Gagnon, left, and stu­dent Lo­gan Zein­ert pre­pare for a chilly dive in the shoal wa­ters Baie Verte, Tues­day, Oct 23 The two were scout­ing lo­ca­tions for a po­ten­tial sea urchin farm­ing pi­lot project in the area

ADAM RAN­DELL — THE CEN­TRAL VOICE

Roe can be found in both male and fe­male urchins.

ADAM RAN­DELL/THE CEN­TRAL VOICE

Baie Verte brothers Ron, left, and Bern Barker are en­cour­aged by the sea urchin re­search ac­tiv­ity and hope it can help es­tab­lish an­other source of rev­enue for area fish­er­men.

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