For some people, the path to aquaculture is a straightforward one. For others, like Brian Tsuyoshi Takeda, Urchinomics’ CEO, it can be the distance from Norway to Japan and the journey catalyzed by a tsunami. More than eight thousand kilometers of distance is nothing if the path takes you to kelp forest restoration, passing through premium sea urchins production or, as he puts it, “restoration as part of the business model”.
Do you remember the former motto used by Google? “Don’t be evil”, they said. When talking about Urchinomics it could be “To do good”. It’s not its official slogan, but Brian uses it many times during the conversation to explain its ultimate objective. To be a positive impact on the planet, to be part of the solution, are other expressions he uses. To do good, but also opportunities to be a profitable business and, luckily, to be the example he wants to be.
Your first steps did not seem to lead you towards it, so the first question is, why aquaculture?
In 2011, we had the big earthquake and tsunami in Eastern Japan. At that time, I had already moved to Norway and, in 2012, the Norwegian government invited a big delegation of between 70 to 90 fishers from Eastern Japan. They came to visit Norway and learn more about the various aquaculture and fisheries technologies that Norway had, as a way to inspire them, to rethink how they would rebuild the fisheries.
During this moment of interaction, we learned that the problem wasn’t just about rebuilding their homes or rebuilding their boats, that were lost in the tsunami. It was that those that had boats, couldn’t fish anymore because when the tsunami came it washed away all the predatory species. Suddenly all the predators were gone, and the urchins were able to reproduce and reproduce and reproduce, and they ate up all the kelp forests. That’s when we realized there was a more fundamental problem about the ecosystems, and we thought maybe we could use some of the aquaculture technologies that Norway already had and see if they can be a part of the solution.
So, yes, the inspiration was really that tsunami and, after doing the trials, we learned urchin barren, or the overpopulation of urchins, is not just a problem of Eastern Japan, but it was a global problem.
Urchinomics is one of three commercial ventures in the world endorsed by the United Nations Ocean Decade. What does this endorsement mean for you as a company? And how would you explain the project to someone who doesn’t know Urchinomics?
It’s one thing to be endorsed by the United Nations, it’s another thing to be endorsed knowing that there are only three in the world. That means a lot to us. We knew that what we were doing was the right thing, but because of the endorsement, others that were looking at Urchinomics and wondered what the concept is, when the UN gave us their endorsement, it made it easier for them to say “hey, we would love to work with you too”. So opened up a lot of doors and a lot of opportunities for us to do good, but also opportunities for us to be a profitable business.
Urchinomics is a restorative aquaculture venture that turns an environmental challenge into an economic, ecologic, and social opportunity. In short, we pay commercial fishers to harvest empty urchins that are preventing kelp forests from growing and put them into our land-based recirculating systems. We then feed them a naturally derived formulated feed, and turn them into premium sea urchin roe, or “uni”, in 6 to 12 weeks. And, as a result of removing urchins from the seafloor, we help kelp forests recover. So, the more we sell our premium sea urchin roe into the market, the better the environment becomes.
We are one of the few commercial ventures in the world where the more we succeed or the more we profit, the better the environment becomes because the environmental benefit is kind of like a positive externality. We hope to be an example for others to think of restoration as part of the business model.
The company has two clear lines of action: the restoration of coastal ecosystems and the aquaculture business. How do you manage/differentiate each of them, being one so altruism-oriented and the other so profit-oriented?
Actually, the novelty of Urchinomics’ business model is that both activities are directly tied together. By us pursuing profits through our aquaculture business, we necessarily remove overgrazing urchins from the ocean floor and help restore kelp forests. So, we do not see these as two separate lines of action, but rather one. Our aquaculture business essentially generates a positive externality in the form of ecosystem restoration. It’s the same thing, and it is the strength of the business model.
There are more than enough places around the world where we have too many urchins, so we want to target those places first, and maybe, at some point in time, it will be too far, it doesn’t make sense to do the aquaculture there anymore, but our aquaculture systems are mobile. You can disassemble and rebuild somewhere else. It’s not like land-based aquaculture where you have to build these massive concrete tanks that don’t move. We can put our systems in any fish processing facility. So, if we’re not happy with that location, because we’ve done such a good job, we just say “okay, great, our job is done. Let’s move it”.
We like to talk about people, and job creation is one of the keys to this project. How does Urchinomics create jobs at sea and how does it create jobs on land?
There are two ways we work with people in the sea. We have commercial fishers, so divers and boats and others, and then there are volunteer or nonprofit fishers. Either way so long as the urchins come out of the water, we’re happy. So, if we’re partnering with an environmental, nonprofit, we would be happy not to buy, but donate money that is equivalent to the price of what we would have paid commercial fishers to get urchins. That way we can help cover some of the costs of the restoration work the nonprofit is doing. If it’s a commercial fisher, then we just pay them for collecting the urchins. Empty urchins have no economic value, yet the same urchins overgraze kelp forests and ruin the foundation of all sorts of coastal fisheries. By paying divers to harvest empty urchins, we are improving the livelihoods of coastal fishers directly. And by contributing to kelp forest restoration, we can expect improved marine biomass and biodiversity over time.
On land, we have, of course, a land-based aquaculture facility using RAS. So, we need to have aquaculture technicians to be able to operate the site, as well as maintain the animals and do all this stuff that we need to do in land-based aquaculture.
There’s one other stakeholder that often gets forgotten, but I think is important to remember. When kelp forests come back, all the fish that disappeared, come back as well. So, even though the other fishers that are fishing other fish do not directly get paid by us, they get the benefit of that marine seafood coming back. That’s why we have lots of friends in the fishery space, because they see that we can also help others.
Regarding the sustainability of the project, how do you ensure that the fisheries that supply you with sea urchins are sustainable or that the fishermen are working in the right way?
The way we ensure that we fish properly is to, first, always work with the local scientists, local marine ecologists who have a solid understanding of their marine ecosystems and have them tell us where and how to harvest the urchins to achieve most impact.
We also are asking our fishers to harvest empty, ecologically destructive urchins from the barrens only. By increasing supply into the market using overgrazing, barren urchins, we should be reducing pressure on the overfished stocks that are diminishing year by year.
Continuing with sustainability, the project benefits for the marine ecosystem are clear, but how does it work on land? What does your aquaculture project consist of and what innovations does it have?
It’s essentially three pieces of intellectual property that make up our competitive advantage: naturally derived formulated feed, urchin specific land-based aquaculture systems and RAS, and biological know-how from around the world.
The Norwegian government and its scientists have been spending 25 years or so, trying to refine and perfect a feed that could put value on urchins, like we do today, because Norway also has massive urgent barrens. We secured the global rights to that technology that allows a feed to maintain its water stability so that the urchins can eat it. Urchins eat really slow, so if the feed doesn’t stay solid for days, it could melt and then ruin your RAS system, it could get rotten, and caused a lot of problems. So, the Norwegians figured out a way to keep the feed very stable without using the typical binders. Dry kelp, when you put it in water, it expands rapidly, so the feed breaks down very quickly, but this technology allows you to keep all that kelp in pellet form. Then we took that technology, partnered with Mitsubishi Corporation´s feed company, Nosan Corporation, brought their access to some of the best kombu kelp, the very umami-rich kombu kelp, and we put those raw materials together with that Norwegian feed, so we were able to produce a premium feed pellet that can produce quality uni all around the world. That’s number one.
Number two is that, based on that feed, we built an entire urchins-specific aquaculture system. So not just the RAS, the whole system for the urchin, so that they can eat the feed and we can clean the systems effectively.
The third is the biological understanding, the biological behavior, how the animals behave when they are fed this feed, living in our aquaculture system. We have maybe 15 scientists around the world that we partner with and do research on to see how the feed and our aquaculture systems, and the urchins behave together. That’s how we understand, and we learn, from different places around the world, how they work.
From your point of view, what are the biggest challenges Urchinomics will face in the coming years?
There are essentially three regulatory issues that prevent us from having the most impact as we hope.
The first one has to do with weird regulations that were put in place, that do not really apply anymore. The current regulations around the world are based on wild fisheries. Back in the 80s, when Japan was roaring, there were fears that Japanese consumption would deplete urchin stocks around the world, and various governments implemented regulations to hinder overexploitation. Catch size limitations and fisheries closures were put into place to preserve stocks. However, now that urchins have overrun so many places around the world, the problem is not overexploitation anymore but rather too many urchins overgrazing kelp forests. Those rules, put in place with good intention to protect stocks, are now ironically the same rules preventing kelp forest restoration. Removing commercial-sized urchins does help, but more often than not we also need to remove the smaller urchins, year-round, to have the desired restorative effect. So, we would appeal to governments to create a separate kind of permit, a restorative aquaculture permit of sorts, that would allow our fishers to fish all sizes of urchins, year-round, in designated restoration zones, so that we can achieve the fullest impact possible.
The second is the use of technology. We need to allow technologies to help us fight the urchin barren problem. With the one exception of Norway, all countries usually have a rule that says urchins can only be fished by hand. This limits the scalability of restoration. We should embrace technologies to remove urchins at scale for restoration purposes.
And the third one is, and this is a bigger picture, we need governments to recognize blue carbon and blue biodiversity credits sooner so that we can get today´s polluters to help pay for restoration and help us secure a better tomorrow.
At the end of our talk, Brian makes this reflection on the current state of the oceans: “Our knowledge has improved substantially. Now that we know we have done this damage, we can’t ignore it. We gotta do something about it. That’s why we want to deploy a for-profit business model that is scalable. Once we can prove it, once we can just copy it in the region, then try to be a positive impact on the planet”. Again, for him, for Urchinomics, it’s not so much “Don’t be evil” as “To do good”.
Urchinomics is a pioneering restorative aquaculture venture that aims to turn ecologically destructive sea urchins into high valued seafood products that can be consistently supplied nearly year-round. Its methodology helps restore kelp forests, which in turn supports greater marine biomass, biodiversity, and capacity to sequester atmospheric CO2, all while creating employment in rural, coastal communities around the world