Here in the Gulf Coast, we’re raised on seafood. Fish, shrimp, crab, and oysters are big part of our diets from a young age, and we eat it every chance we get.
But there’s one species from our Gulf that even the savviest of foodies may be unfamiliar with: Lytechinus variegatus, a sea urchin, commonly found in shallow nearshore waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
Yes, Gulf sea urchins (often called green or variegated sea urchins) aren’t much to look at. In fact, they’re quite a burden for divers who might step on them and get hurt by their spines. And for those reasons, many seafood fans would turn their nose up at sea urchin—if they were lucky enough to even find it on the menu.
Truth is, sea urchin is delicious, and due to its scarcity and lack of seasonality, it’s become a Gulf seafood delicacy. But there simply aren’t enough urchins in the sea to make this dish a common offering at restaurants.
For nearly two decades now, Dr. Watts and his team at UAB’s Biology Department have been hard at work culturing Gulf sea urchins to meet a market demand for this tasty seafood treat.
A Global Delicacy
As the story goes, Japan is historically the largest market for uni (their word for sea urchins) in the world. But because sea urchins aren’t exactly difficult to catch, by the early 90s, Japanese fishermen had completely overharvested their native sea urchins. And when the U.S. supply hit high demand, chiefly in New England and on the West Coast, overharvesting happened yet again.
So NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) got involved and commissioned scientists across the country to begin culturing sea urchins. UAB happened to be one of the chosen few.
“There weren’t maybe five people in the country that knew how to work with sea urchins,” said Dr. Watts, who was born and raised here in Alabama. “And we were one of them.”
The biggest obstacle in front of them? Urchin food.
Changing the Diet
Farmed sea urchins had been produced before, but the challenge was to replicate a more natural, appealing taste while providing urchins with the nutrients they need in a sustainable manner.
“We started making urchin diets, same as they’ve been doing for dogs and cats for years,” said Dr. Watts. “We started with lettuce and carrots.”
Within a few years, Dr. Watts’ team had figured out a successful diet. Problem was, the roe (or eggs) was not very good—poor color, bitter flavor.
So they continued to tinker with the formula until, two years ago, they came up with a recipe that they were excited about. But rather than trusting only their own taste buds, they decided to call in an expert: Chef Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham.
Testing the Taste
After receiving an email about these sea urchins from Dr. Watts, Hastings was floored, calling back immediately to ask when he could try them. A week later, he was in UAB’s lab eating fresh sea urchins—and loving them.
He had his reservations about aquacultured sea urchins at first.
“I had a lot of questions,” said Hastings. “For me as a chef, the first thing was, what’s it gonna taste like? Uni in the wild is arguably one of the most sought-after delicacies in the ocean, so how are you gonna replicate that in a lab?”
After tasting the urchins and learning about the sustainable manner in which they’d been raised, he was fully on board. Shortly thereafter, Hastings chose some of his regular customers at Hot and Hot to try out the uni dish.
“People around Birmingham and the Gulf seafood community are really not at all familiar with sea urchin,” said Hastings. “So it was a wild moment for everybody who tasted it. That was really cool. For those people who did taste it who are big uni fans, they thought it was delicious.”
Spreading the News
Hastings shared the good news about UAB’s sea urchins on Twitter, and at that point, the secret was out.
Dr. Watts got a call from the producers of “Bizarre Foods America” on the Travel Channel, and soon enough, Andrew Zimmern and his crew were in UAB’s lab for multiple days, trying sea urchins and learning about the history of the project.
Other chefs throughout the South began expressing interest in serving sea urchins, and Chef David Bancroft at Acre in Auburn decided to take it one step further—for his dish at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off, Bancroft contacted Dr. Watts and asked if he could use uni for his sauce.
“We were tickled to death,” said Dr. Watts. “We didn’t have a ton of urchins, but he only needed just a few.”
When the GASCO rolled around, Bancroft brought the live sea urchins to the contest and cracked them open in front of the judges to emphasize the freshness of the ingredient. And, sure enough, the judges were impressed.
“The opportunity to extract it live right there in front of the audience and the cameras definitely assisted in our showmanship,” said Bancroft. “One of the responses from the judges, his quote was, ‘that sauce is boss.’ It was the best sauce that he had.”
All Tomorrow’s Menus
With UAB’s sea urchins now squarely in the national spotlight, the next step for Dr. Watts and his team is to expand their operation to the point where it can become a business endeavor.
UAB is open to sharing their knowledge and research with others. However, the initial start-up costs would be expensive, and there would be some trial and error throughout the process.
“It is our hope that an entrepreneur who is familiar with the trials and tribulations of a new industry will work with us to make a sea urchin farm (in Alabama) a reality,” said Dr. Watts.
This endeavor wouldn’t just stop at urchins though. Just last year, Dr. Watts’ team made a major breakthrough when they discovered that aquacultured shrimp can be grown by feeding them urchin waste, thus eliminating the cost of feeding the shrimp. This could creating substantial savings for the Gulf seafood industry in the future.
But Dr. Watts and his team aren’t just sitting on their hands waiting for their phones to ring. They’re still hard at work trying to perfect their sea urchin food formula even further.
UAB’s work in this area is important to the Gulf seafood community for several reasons, but the high interest and demand for uni has made them a popular target for chefs and restaurateurs throughout the country.
In short, UAB’s focus on these prickly little animals may soon create a widespread impact on Alabama Gulf Seafood and the culinary possibilities for restaurants and markets throughout the state.
“If we can get sea urchins sustainably raised here in Birmingham or out of the Gulf, it’s one of the most underappreciated delicacies that we have access to,” said Hastings. “It’s great to know that UAB is doing such cutting-edge research on sustainable seafood. UAB is an amazing part of this community and it needs to be celebrated and recognized for this kind of work.”
Note: This article was last updated September 15, 2016