It is one of Sicily’s most popular dishes: spaghetti ai ricci di mare, or sea urchin spaghetti. Prepared with a simple base of oil and garlic, plates of the stuff are demolished every summer, particularly by the hundreds of thousands of tourists who descend on the island every year.
But sea urchins’ status as a culinary delicacy is leading to their gradual disappearance from local waters, and last week researchers said the Sicilian sea urchin, which resides on the sea floor and feeds primarily on algae, could soon become extinct if urgent conservation policies were not implemented.
Since that stark warning, a local politician has proposed a three-year ban on all sea urchin fishing in Sicily – but the idea is likely to face stiff opposition from both fishers and restaurateurs.
“On the one hand, I understand the need to preserve the sea urchin species,” said Gaetano Serio, a chef at Osteria Lo Bianco in Palermo. “But on the other hand, blocking sea urchin fishing in Sicily for three years would be a tough blow for those of us who work in the restaurant industry. When sea urchin spaghetti is on my menu, we serve up to 40 dishes a day.”
The fishing of sea urchins is already restricted in Sicily. According to researchers from the University of Palermo, only 12 fishers hold regular fishing licences for sea urchins, while hundreds continue to fish them illegally.
Their methods are relatively simple, as the urchins can be found at shallow depths. They are also potentially devastating.
Presented to the Sicilian government last week, the researchers’ study said a total pause in fishing for at least three years was the only way of staving off extinction.
“Unfortunately, the conclusions of this study are disheartening,” said Paola Gianguzza, scientific coordinator of the study. “In the marine-protected areas of Sicily, we have not found any sea urchins nor signs of a healthy population. We would need to halt fishing for at least three years if we wanted to preserve this species.”
The stony, purple sea urchins, Paracentrotus lividus, are sensitive to environmental conditions and have also been affected by the climate crisis and pollution, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
But in Sicily it is their status as a delicacy that is driving their decimation. “In Sicily, sea urchins are subject to intense illegal fishing due to their nutritional and economic value,” said Marco Toccaceli, from the Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (Crea), a leading Italian research organisation dedicated to the agri-food supply chains. “For this reason, we must intensify enforcement.”
Since the publication of the study, Nello Dipasquale, a member of the centre-left Democratic party, has been working on a legislative proposal to ban sea urchin fishing in the island’s waters.
“I am, like many others, a lover of sea urchin fishing,” he told the Giornale di Sicilia. “But I believe that we can all give up fishing and enjoying them for three years in order to save a species seriously at risk of extinction. Losing them would be serious damage to the ecosystem. We must intervene as soon as possible.”
Angelo Pumilia, chef at the Foresteria Planeta wine resort in Menfi on the south-west coast of Sicily, called for greater awareness of the risks of illegal fishing.
“It is a serious problem,” he said, claiming that many of his fellow chefs bought urchins from illegal fishers “who sell them at significantly lower prices”.
Pumilia, one of Italy’s most celebrated chefs, said: “Just think that 100g of fresh sea urchins from Norway or Japan can cost up to €250 [£217] per gram. A Sicilian illegal fisherman sells them to the restaurant owner for as low as €7 or €10 per 100g. There are channels to legally acquire sea urchins, but they are too expensive for many restaurants.
“We, who make quality cuisine and trace every ingredient, buy sea urchins from abroad because here in Sicily, the regulation of this species is too shady and incomplete. There is a need for a general awareness – otherwise we truly risk having to do without one of the main culinary delicacies of our region.”
In California, meanwhile, scientists are struggling with the opposite problem: there, the sea urchin population has exploded by 10,000% since 2014 due to the decline in sea otter and starfish populations – two natural predators of sea urchins.
Hundreds of millions of purple sea urchins have covered the coast from Baja to Alaska, where they have been devouring the region’s vital kelp forests, causing untold damage to the marine ecosystem. It is estimated that in California, 95% of the kelp forests, which provide shelter and food to a wide range of marine life, have been destroyed and replaced by “urchin barrens” – vast carpets of spiked purple orbs along the ocean floor.