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Food & Beverage

Rich Asians raise fortunes of Japanese sea urchin ranchers

Baby uni fatten up on seaweed before being shipped to Thailand and Hong Kong

Sea urchins grown on "ranches" in the northeastern Japanese town of Hirono feed for four years before being harvested. (Photo by Takumi Sasaki)

TOKYO -- On summer days, restaurants in northeastern Japan's coastal town of Hirono bustle with tourists savoring the local delicacy: sea urchin.

Now, a rising tide of orders from affluent Asian consumers is bringing the taste of Hirono's uni to the world and lifting the local economy.

Around 550 km northeast of Tokyo, the Iwate Prefecture town has been called a paradise for lovers of the prickly sea creatures filled with creamy golden flesh.

The local fishing industry made the rich waters for uni more productive by building sea urchin "ranches" fenced in with rocks half a century ago.

Uni raised on these ranches, which stretch for over 10 km of the Pacific Ocean coast, are shipped to such Asian markets as Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan, according to local seafood processor Kita-Sanriku Factory.

Baby sea urchins are raised in tanks before being put out to graze on seaweed in coastal ranches. (Photo by Takumi Sasaki)

"We want the world to enjoy the uni we are so proud of," CEO Yukinori Shitautsubo said.

The uni graze on seaweed -- one of their favorites being kombu kelp -- for four years before being harvested. Pools at a local research center hold a constant supply of around 2.5 million baby sea urchins to restock the ranches as needed.

This approach to uni farming ensures steady year-round shipments of the seafood, traditionally a summer delicacy.

Uni raised in this way "have a sweetness and umami and are nice and fleshy," Shitautsubo said.

Kita-Sanriku Factory's uni exports will total about 7 tons this year, and the company aims to grow the figure three- to fourfold by 2021.

Seafood forms a major part of the economy of towns like Hirono along the Tohoku region's rugged Sanriku coast, which was devastated by the 2011 tsunami.

Hirono's restaurants serve the local delicacy in a variety of ways, from the classic unidon bowls of raw sea urchin over rice to a soup of uni and abalone.

Next June, the town will open facilities to process and sell uni and other locally produced seafood and farm products.

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