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Sicily’s Sea Urchin Debacle: A Delicacy at the Brink of Extinction

Cefalu, medieval city of Sicily island, Province of Palermo, Italy. Cefalu is city in Italian Metropolitan City of Palermo located on Tyrrhenian coast of Sicily, Italy.

Spiky and purple, resembling many punk-influenced haircuts in the 80s, sea urchin dishes have become a staple within the idyllic island of Sicily, with the most popular being spaghetti ai ricci di mare, which translates to “sea urchin spaghetti.” It sounds better in Italian (like most things).

Fresh sea urchins from south of Italy, Puglia region

Traditionally infused with local oil and garlic, this simple but decadent dish has attracted thousands of tourists for many years; however, sea urchins, which can live up to 200 years, could soon be off the menu with extinction looming. 

Harvested in deep and shallow waters, the dreaded fear of running out has been driven by demand, lackluster policies, and illegal poaching; there are only 12 licensed fishermen – who can legally catch sea urchins – sailing Sicily’s turquoise waters, suggesting the latter to be the predominant catalyst for a declining population. 

Panoramic View Over Sicilian Coastline and Cofano Mountain, San Vito Lo Capo

In fact, it’s so bad that a local politician is threatening a three-year ban on all sea urchin activity, which is suspected to go down poorly amongst the local fishermen and restaurants, making a ban on sea urchin fishing problematic, with many obstacles to overcome.

But, if the charming towns of Sicily want to continue serving this delicacy for the years to come, there may be no other choice. 

Purple sea urchins being sold in Sicilian market. Credit: P Tomlins/Alamy

With many endorsing illegal sea urchin fishing, some restaurants are to blame for the species’ rapid downfall. Too expensive for most establishments, they can buy them for as low as €7 per 100g illegally, while the same amount can cost upwards of €250 when acquired from the fresh and fruitful Norwegian and Japanese waters.

The Treats of Sicily

Sicily, a gem in the heart of the Mediterranean, captivates visitors with its diverse and breathtaking landscapes. The island boasts an array of pristine beaches, each with its unique charm. From the golden shores of San Vito Lo Capo to the volcanic black sands of Giardini Naxos, Sicily offers a coastal tapestry that entices sun-seekers and water enthusiasts alike.

Aerial view of Isola Bella beach coast in Taormina, Sicily, Italy

The culinary delights of Sicily are a celebration of the island’s rich history and cultural fusion. The scent of citrus orchards and olive groves permeates the air, enhancing the flavors of dishes like arancini, cannoli, and pasta alla Norma. Sicilian cuisine is a tantalizing journey through centuries, blending Arab, Norman, and Greek influences into a gastronomic symphony.

And with a calendar often filled with sun-drenched days and serene evenings, it’s a dream destination. Summers beckon visitors to bask in the warmth while enjoying gelato in the shadow of ancient ruins. Spring and autumn offer a more temperate climate, ideal for exploring the island’s historic sites and hiking through the lush interior.

Cefalu, medieval city of Sicily island, Province of Palermo, Italy. Cefalu is city in Italian Metropolitan City of Palermo located on Tyrrhenian coast of Sicily, Italy.

Speaking of history, Sicily is a living testament to the rise and fall of civilizations. The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento showcases ancient Greek architecture against a backdrop of rolling hills. Palermo’s Norman Palace narrates tales of Arab rule, and the Greek Theatre in Taormina provides a stage for the island’s enduring cultural legacy.

Sicily, with its blend of natural wonders, culinary treasures, favorable climate, and rich history, unfolds like a tapestry of experiences that linger in the hearts of those fortunate enough to explore its beauty.

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