Skip to main content

Master of Environmental Science and Management: Eco-Entrepreneurship Project
(2021)

Unicado: Protecting Kelp Forests through Purple Sea Urchin Ranching and Urchin Food Products

Orange roe of a sea urchin.

Group Members: Wes Newbury, Waldo Felix, Max Diamond, Qusai Bhaijeewala

Faculty Advisors: Emily Cotter, Darcy Bradley

Website: uni-cado.com

Contact: gp‑unicado@bren.ucsb.edu

Description

In the last five years, California's purple sea urchin population has exploded over 100-fold. The proliferation of purple urchins has eliminated much of California’s kelp habitat, eradicating 90% of northern California’s kelp habitat. Having overconsumed their primary food resource, urchins are starving, congregated in huge barren formations. While healthy urchins fetch top dollar in seafood markets for their roe (known as uni), fishermen have no incentive to harvest these starved urchins. The loss of kelp forests is alarming, because they constitute essential habitat for California's coastal biodiversity, and because they provide $100 million dollars of value annually through ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and ocean de-acidification. Although kelp habitats cover only 0.5% of the planet, the benefits that they offer equal those of all terrestrial ecosystems combined. Our Eco-E project, Unicado, seeks to grow purple urchins resourcefully through a process known as upcycling, which utilizes food waste streams produced locally that would otherwise go to landfill. We would thereby spare the kelp forests consumed by wild urchins to produce a gourmet affordable seafood product that is potentially carbon neutral. In this manner, the act of eating these ranched purple urchins has the hallmarks of restorative consumption. By increasing both the purple urchin supply and the demand for them, we hope to incentivize a commercial fishery large enough to halt the explosion of purple urchin populations to protect California's kelp forests. Unicado thus involves two parallel efforts: ranching urchins, and going to market with ranched urchin food products.

Acknowledgements

Darcy Bradley, Marine Ecologist and Co-Director, UCSB Sustainable Fisheries Group

Emily Cotter, Professor and Eco-Entrepreneurship Program Manager, Bren School

Carrolyn Culver, Lead Investigator, NOAA California Sea Grant Specialist