Tuesday, April 11, 2017

SENA17: Sea Urchin Master Class

"I've never been hurt by a sea creature, except for jellyfish and sea urchins."
--Peter Benchley, Author of Jaws and The Deep

Their gonads are a culinary delicacy, highly valued by many Japanese diners. You can find them available at a number of Japanese restaurants in the U.S. as well as some other high-end restaurants. I'm a fan and know plenty of others who enjoy them too. I'm referring to Sea Urchin, a spiny sea creature, and its "roe" which are actually gonads. You may know their gonads by their Japanese name, Uni. "Uni" doesn't mean "sea urchin" but specifically refers to their "gonads."

At the Seafood Expo North America (SENA), they offered a Master Class in Sea Urchin, presented by Chef Ned Bell of Ocean Wise, a sustainable seafood program, and Claire Li Loong of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. The presentation was sponsored by the Pacific Urchin Harvesters Association, an industry association established to examine fishery issues in the Red Sea Urchin in British Columbia.

Chef Ned Bell is the Ocean Wise Executive Chef at the Vancouver Aquarium, as well as a sustainable seafood ambassador. Bell founded Chefs for Oceans in 2014 to raise awareness about sustainable seafood. He has worked in a number of restaurants, including, most recently, the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver and YEW seafood + bar. The Four Seasons was the first hotel in British Columbia to be 100% certified Ocean Wise. Bell’s cooking philosophy is "globally inspired and locally created" and he has a cookbook due out in the fall. He was a personable and passionate speaker, and I was fortunate to see him at another seminar at the Expo as well.

He began with some general remarks on sustainable seafood, noting we all should "choose responsible seafood." Like a growing number of chefs, Chef Bell seems to prefer to use the term "responsible" rather than "sustainable." A growing number of people feel that the term "sustainable" has been diluted over time and have chosen a different term which they feel is more appropriate. Chef Bell stated that we need to build relationships with responsible fishermen, supporting those who do the right thing. I fully agree and it is those relationships which help to build trust, and when assessing sustainability, trust is very important.

Polling the audience, only about 40% of them had tasted sea urchin before. It was cool to see a significant number of adventurous attendees who were curious about sea urchin and willing to sample it. As I've often said before, including in yesterday's post, we need to eat more species than the most common ones. Chef Bell noted that in North America, sea urchin is a relatively new delicacy, and most sea urchin is exported to Japan. The domestic market in Canada for sea urchin is still small, but growing. The discussion centered on the Red Sea Urchin from British Colombia.

The Red Sea Urchin ranges from Alaska down to Baja, California, though about 80% of these sea urchin are collected on the North Coast. Last year, 4000 metric tonnes were caught in British Colombia, by divers in remote areas. They dive to depths from 12-60 feet, and the sea urchins they harvest are often available within 24 hours. The Red Sea Urchin is the largest in the world, with a maximum diameter of about 18 centimeters and spines up to 7 centimeters long. It takes them about five years to reach maturity and they have millions of eggs per spawning event. The harvest season is from October to May.

Sea Urchin has a shelf life of 7-10 days. The firmer and more well defined sea urchin is better used in sushi while the softer variety is better used in soups and sauces. Chef Bell recommended that we should eat less common seafood, such as sea urchin, which is certainly an excellent idea to take pressure off some of the more popular types of fish. As Red Sea Urchin is very sustainable, it makes for a good option.

Claire then took over the discussion to talk about Ocean Wise, which recommends sustainable seafood by scientific assessment. This is akin to the Seafood Watch of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. These assessments are based on four main components: a) Heathy stock; b) Limited bycatch; c) Well managed; and d) Limited habitat damage. A numerical score is generated, ranging up to a maximum of 5, and a fishery needs at least a 2.8 to be considered sustainable.

The Red Sea Urchin has been assessed as sustainable by Ocean Wise. It has a healthy and abundant stock. Its main predator is the sea otter but there are not as many otters around so its population has grown. Harvesting sea urchin by individual divers means that there is almost no bycatch. That also means that is very limited habitat damage from those divers. The fishery is also well managed, with a quota system, minimum size limits, good enforcements, and even observers at the docks to help monitoring.

Locally, I know that Red's Best at the Boston Public Market sometimes sells Sea Urchins. You could buy some, take them home and prepare them yourself. Check out some Sea Urchin Recipes from the Pacific Urchin Harvesters Association. Or, the next time you dine out and see Sea Urchin on the menu, order it and enjoy its compelling flavors.

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