Rise of the Sea Urchin

In the icy waters off Norway, one intrepid Scot dives deep to satisfy the latest fjord-to-table craze at Europe’s finest restaurants

(Mitchell Feinberg)
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The merroir of oysters varies widely—generally, smaller varieties tend to have a slightly metallic taste. We ask: In the urchins’ briny universe, does size matter? “The urchin gonad is both a nutritive reserve organ and a gametogenic organ,” says Lawrence, a professor at the University of South Florida. “It is a nutrient reserve organ because it produces nutritive phagocytes that store protein and glycogen. These are produced in the gonads during the first part of the reproductive cycle and are transferred to the gametes. The gonads are most flavorful when they consist primarily of nutritive phagocytes and not gametes. It is possible the gonads of small urchins consist primarily of nutritive phagocytes.”

Simply said, Sloan’s finest urchins are much like a juicy cut of Wagyu steak: lots of energy stored. The nutritive phagocytes of the roe and the fat of well-marbled beef account for their robustness. Sloan has an even simpler explanation for why his greens are so exquisite. “By June, when the midnight sun arrives, there’s lots of algae for them to eat,” he says. “Everything grows slowly up here, so the urchins taste better.”


Both fragile and destructive, the urchin is a tempest in an environmental seapot. In every corner of the planet, there seem to be either too few or too many. The French and Irish exhausted their resident stocks years ago. In Maine, Nova Scotia and Japan, urchin populations have been drastically reduced by overfishing and disease.

Meanwhile, off the coasts of California and Tasmania, overfishing the animal’s natural predators and large-scale change in ocean circulation—believed to be an effect of climate change—have turned vast stretches of seafloor into “urchin barrens” that remind you of moonscapes. The urchins multiply, chew down the kelp and devastate marine ecosystems. “Management of the sea is the only way,” says Sloan.

He culls his wild urchin beds on a five-year rotation, and wants Norway to adopt a hands-on approach—instituting quotas and establishing fishing zones. In return, a hunter of urchins might produce an underwater map or feed them kelp washed ashore when natural supplies are scarce.


From a jetty in Nordskot Harbor, Sloan gazes over the sea, but a gray mist obscures the cliffs and slopes. “I’d like to plant maple trees on my land,” he says, a bit wistfully. A neighbor told him the trees wouldn’t produce sap for at least 25 years: “You’ll be very, very old.” Sloan told the neighbor, “That’s not the point. I’m looking to the future.”

Sloan would be happy if the future looked a lot like the present. “I’ve got a smart woman as a wife and an old, fat Labrador,” he says, laughing at the Norwegian jokiness of it all. “I don’t need a Ferrari. I can’t watch more than one TV. I can’t sleep in more than one bed. If you have enough in life, that’s all that matters. I’m just clearing sand off the bottom of the ocean.”

About Franz Lidz

A longtime senior writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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