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Rising Demand Threatens Sicilian Sea Urchins with Extinction

One of the most popular dishes on the Italian island of Sicily is sea urchin spaghetti. Tourists who visit the island each year have long adored it. However, due to this popularity, sea urchins are gradually disappearing from Sicilian waters and facing extinction risk.

성게 스파게티
Sea Urchin Spaghetti /seriouseats

A recent report by The Guardian states that researchers have warned that sea urchins could soon become extinct if urgent conservation measures are not implemented. A local politician has proposed a three-year ban on all sea urchin fishing in Sicily. Still, fishermen and restaurant owners are expected to oppose this proposal strongly.

A chef at a restaurant in the Sicilian city of Palermo acknowledges the need for sea urchin conservation but argues that “a three-year ban on sea urchin fishing in Sicily would be a huge blow to those in the food industry.”

Sea urchin fishing is already banned in Sicily. Sea urchins are found in shallow waters and are relatively easy to collect. According to a researcher at the University of Palermo, only 12 fishermen hold regular fishing licenses for sea urchins, while hundreds continue to fish illegally.

Sicily, Italy /Photo=Pixabay

Last week, a study submitted to the Sicilian government reported that a complete halt to fishing for at least three years is the only way to prevent extinction.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the purple sea urchin (Paracentrotus lividus), sensitive to environmental conditions, has been affected by the climate crisis and pollution. However, in Sicily, their popularity as a delicacy drives their extinction.

In Sicily, sea urchins are the target of severe illegal fishing due to their nutritional and economic value.

Marco Toccaceli of the Italian research institution Crea, which focuses on the agricultural food supply chain, argues for more vigorous enforcement. He says it’s a severe problem that many chefs buy sea urchins from illegal fishermen who sell them at low prices.

“Consider that the price of fresh sea urchin from Norway or Japan can reach up to €250 (around $295) per 100 grams. Sicilian illegal fishermen sell it to restaurant owners for 7 to 10 euros per 100 grams. There are legal ways to obtain sea urchins, but many restaurants find the price too high.”

Purple sea urchins are being sold at a seafood market in Catania, Sicily. /Photo=The Guardian

On the other hand, scientists in California, USA, face the opposite problem: too many sea urchins.

The population of sea otters and starfish, natural predators of sea urchins, has decreased in California, leading to a staggering 10,000% increase in the sea urchin population since 2014.

Hundreds of millions of purple sea urchins have covered the coast from Baja to Alaska, eating away at the region’s essential kelp forests and causing significant damage to the marine ecosystem. In California, 95% of the kelp forests that provide shelter and food for a wide range of marine life have been destroyed and replaced by urchin barrens, also called a vast carpet of spiky purple spheres along the seafloor.

Purple sea urchins have destroyed about 90% of the kelp forests along the northern California coast. /Photo=NBC News

Meanwhile, in South Korea’s Dokdo, the underwater rock surfaces have turned white due to climate change, and seaweed has disappeared. Sea urchins are sticking to the white rocks, accelerating the desertification of the sea (whitening).

According to the Korea Fisheries Resources Agency, whitening is a phenomenon where the sea turns into a desert as large seaweeds that used to inhabit coastal rock areas disappear due to excessive coastal development, environmental pollution, increase in grazing animals, climate change, etc. Cement-like, non-articulated coralline algae cover the rocks.

Marine scientists point out that the “pirate creature” sea urchin is the main culprit of the desertification of the sea in Dokdo. Reports have shown that whitening is spreading as sea urchins eat seaweed indiscriminately. An Ocean Science Journal study confirmed that the seaweed forests revived after removing the sea urchins inhabiting the Dokdo waters.

In 2018, the underwater area of Dokdo was seen to be desertifying due to whitening (Whitening Event). /Photo=Newsis

In July, the Sea Urchin Festival was held in Goseong County, Gyeongsangnam-do, for the first time in 12 years. The Chodo Port Sea Urchin Festival, which began in 2006 and was held for six years until 2011, was suspended due to decreased sea urchin production. This year’s festival reportedly offered a variety of programs, including sea urchin auction experiences and cooking experiences using sea urchins like sea urchin seaweed soup, bibimbap, and pancakes.

By. Kim Min Cheol

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