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Head chef and Cocoro Japanese Restaurant co-owner Makoto Tokuyama with the Kinanomics sea urchins. Photo / Jason Oxenham
A New Zealand seafood delicacy may be just months away from being on the menu at restaurants locally and across East Asia.
Markets in East Asia are prepared to pay up to $400 a kg
However, in New Zealand, although overfishing is causing an explosion in kina numbers as their predators decline, many are “barren” as they don’t have enough kelp to eat.
A new project called “Kinanomics”, where malnourished kina are caught and fed in land-based aquaculture systems, is hoping to be the solution in creating a new premium seafood product for export.
“The end product will not be the New Zealand kina as we know it, as we strive to enhance the taste, consistency and look of the kina roe,” said environmental scientist Johnny Wright, who is leading the project.
A tasting panel, consisting of chefs and seafood industry experts, which has been meeting since May, was told this week that the new product may be ready for export by early next year.
Current kina exports are valued between $750,000 and $920,000 a year, and this is expected to give that figure a boost with Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan being looked at as potential markets.
The project is run by EnviroStrat in partnership with Ngati Porou Seafoods and international restorative aquaculture company Urchinomics and works with divers to catch malnourished wild kina and enhance them on land.
The $2.2m Kinanomics project is being supported by a nearly $1m investment from the government’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures Fund.
The kina are harvested from around New Zealand where they have eaten through the kelp and no longer have anything to eat.
“Kina don’t die of starvation, they just remain in the same spot and do not grow and inside, they are almost hollow,” Wright said.
“Commercially these are of no value, and of not much use for export or to anyone at all.”
Wright said the project would create an opportunity to develop a commercial incentive to remove “destructive” kina from the seafloor.
“It will create job opportunities for iwi and coastal communities and also support regeneration.
The barren kina are collected and put into tanks and fed a formulated aquafeed, with the main ingredient being seaweed.
They will then be tested for quality including taste and physical characteristics to assess whether they will appeal to high-value overseas markets.
Panelists at a tasting session at Sanford and Sons Auckland Fish Market this week were asked to rate the urchin’s aroma, visual attributes, taste, texture and aftertaste.
Chef Makoto Tokoyuma, co-owner of Auckland’s award-winning Japanese restaurant Cocoro, is on the panel, but he believes there’s still “some way to go” for the new product to compete internationally, especially in Japan.
Kina roe, also known as uni, is traditionally divided into three grades based on flavour, colour and freshness. The highest grade has a bright yellow or gold colour, sweet taste and firm texture.
Most of the world’s uni is consumed in Japan, and sea urchins from Hokkaido are often rated as the best.
“I think what we have with this kina is the consistency in colour is about right, but it is still lacking in the rich, creamy and even nutty sweetness that we find in Japanese uni,” Tokoyuma said.
“Good uni also needs to have that slight, delicate flavour trace of the ocean, which I feel needs to be enhanced here.”
Panelist Jenny Zo Yang, who hails from Taiwan and is managing director of Good Chow NZ Limited, felt marketing was just as important as having a good product.
“Chicken feet was turned into a delicacy dish after being named ‘feng zhao’ or phoenix claws, and lobsters transformed into the king of seafood because it is called ‘long xia’ or dragon prawn,” she said.
“We have an opportunity to get the naming right for this new product, and that could make or break it in Asia.”
EnviroStrat chief executive Nigel Bradly said feedback had been positive with the enhanced kina having roe that has improved size, taste and colour compared to the kelp-fed ones.
Bradly said there was no shortage of wild kina to harvest with many areas of New Zealand’s kelp forests having been overtaken by exploding populations of kina that have grazed kelp down to bare rock and turned the seafloor into barrens.
Ministry of Primary Industry director of investment programmes Steve Penno said the government was interested in exploring kina’s potential as a high-value export product to support the growth of New Zealand’s aquaculture sector.
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