Animals -> Marine Invertebrates -> Echinoderms -> Sea Urchins

Sea Urchins

Several west and east coast cultures are reported to have gathered sea urchins (often referred to as sea eggs [1-4], particularly the Coast Salish [5-7] and Micmac (Mi'kmaq) [8]. Other cultures reported to consume sea urchin include the Squamish, Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth), Kwakiutl (Kwakwaka'wakw), Nuxalk, Haihais, Bella Bella (Hieltsuk), Oowekeeno (Hieltsuk), Tlingit, Aleut, Eyak and Inuit [9-26]. Remains of sea urchins were identified at several Southeast Alaskan kitchen middens [27].

Along the northwest coast, sea urchins were found only in certain locations, and were usually collected between October and February [28-30]. However for the Kwakiutl at Fort Rupert, sea urchins were available throughout the year [16, 30, 31]. In Northern Quebec, sea urchins were available during winter where the coast was free of ice [32].

The Coast Salish collected large quantities of sea urchins from beaches [5-7]. Micmac collected them from shallow pools left from outgoing tides [8]. Sea urchins were also collected among rocks in waters deeper than other shellfish [11, 17]. If they were not picked off sand or rocks at low tide, a three-pronged pole was used to bring them to the surface from deep waters [4, 17, 33]. Vancouver Island Nootka were partial to sea urchins and collected them with purposely-designed spears and round-nets [3, 25, 31]. Sea urchins were collected by spearmen from canoes, although women also gathered them on beaches by hand [22, 34]. The Squamish would gather them from the beach at Burrard Inlet in summer, carrying them back to their camps in cedar baskets that had holes for water and sand to drain out [11]. Sea urchins were collected from Von Drop Inlet and Squirrel Cove, by the Tl’úhus [35]. The Kyuquot normally collected them along with abalone and were eaten immediately on the beach; however if a large number were collected they were carried back to camp and shared with the community [17]. The Nuxalk sometimes took trips to gather sea urchins [36, 37].

Sea urchins were a much loved treat for the Coast Salish as well as an emergency food [1, 38]. They were most often eaten raw after cracking the shell and scooping out the gonads [1, 17, 33, 35, 39]. According to some, the taste resembled that of oysters [1]. In some cases only the gonads, which were actually the ovaries, were eaten and the inside juices could be sipped as well [40, 41]. Alternatively, the Coast Salish roasted and boiled sea urchin [33] and Micmac usually boiled sea urchins [8]. The Kwakiutl ate female sea urchins raw, and roasted the male sea urchins in a fire until they were charred [28, 40]. They also ate sea urchins raw or boiled after soaking in fresh water. Due to the accessibility of sea urchins throughout the year there was no need to cure or store them [28, 40]. There was a general belief that eating too many sea urchins made one tired and thirsty [17, 35].

The common Nuxalk name for sea urchins was mtm, and the Kyuquot called them totsop [17, 28, 42]. Sea urchins were known to have medicinal powers; a traditional remedy for any infliction [34]. The Manhousat incorporated sea urchins into the myth of how Mink killed the wolf-man: Mink gave him sea urchins and killed him when he fell asleep [35]. The Northern and Central Nootka associated sea urchins with the mythological character Raven, because they were easily acquired. The Kwakiutl branded empty sea urchin shells with fire so that spirits did not eat them. It was believed that if a spirit was to eat from the empty shells then the person who emptied the shells would become sick. Another common belief was that sea urchins could only be eaten four days after they were collected or there would be bad weather [2].

Giant red sea urchins were regularly collected and consumed by the Coast Salish, Manhousat, Kyuquot and Tl’úhus [33, 35, 43]. The best ones were acquired from places where they were found in great numbers. Giant red sea urchins were usually collected from a canoe using a cedar spear with three yew prongs attached at the tip [39, 43]. A long sea urchin spear was used to catch them when the water was deep and a mid-sized spear was used for shallow water. Two people would go out together when it was windy: one person handled the canoe and another caught the sea urchins. A rotating motion was used to spear the animals in order to get a good hold and detach them from the rocks [43]. Urchins were caught by experienced fishermen in winter at night, when there was low tide [39, 43]. The Manhousat most often collected giant red urchins from Hostsprings Cove, Sydney Inlet, and Flores Island. Manhousat fishermen would collect a canoe full and share them with other villagers, who ate them immediately on the beach and sometimes brought basketfuls home. The Kyuquot fishermen did not give their catch away freely: they chose those with whom to share and required others to pay for them [43]. Giant red sea urchins were eaten raw by smashing open the shells and removing the gonads. The gonads were also used as bait to catch the fish, kelp greenling. Giant red sea urchins were known as t’uts’up to the Manhousat and mésikw to the Tl’úhus [35, 43].

Green sea urchins were reported to have been enjoyed by west coast cultures including the Manhousat, Tl’úhus and Southeast Alaskan cultures [33, 35, 38, 44]. Green sea urchin remains were found at Tlingit shell heaps on the northwest coast suggesting they were consumed [34]. Generally picked at low tide by hand, they were also harvested with long-handled dip-nets in shallow waters. The Manhousat found them at specific locations such as Mate Island and Hayden Passage. The gonads, which were either clear orange or milky white and thought to enhance male potency, were eaten raw [38, 43]. Green sea urchins were called áp’ten by the Tl’úhus or nusschi by the Manhousat [35, 43].

Purple sea urchins were also incorporated into the diet of Northwest coast cultures [33, 44]. Purple sea urchin spines and spicules were found at the Tlingit shell middens at Daxatkanada and Pilsbury Point [45]. They were collected with prying sticks from holes between rocks in calm and protected pools along the beach [39, 43]. The Manhousat collected them from Hilhhuu7a or Kaatsis and the Hesquiat went to Estevan Point. In the past, elderly preferred the milky ones and the young enjoyed the clear gonads [43]. Purple sea urchins were also collected by the Tl’úhus who called them mésikw [35].

Kwakiutl were reported to capture a “flat sea urchin” with nets [2, 46], which may have been the common sand dollar. The Equimaux are reported to eat the spawn or ova of common sand dollars [47].


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Sea urchins, and closely related sand dollars, include around 750 species worldwide. In North America, sea urchins include the giant red sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) and the purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) found only along the Pacific coast, and the green sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis) and the common sand dollar (Echinarachnius parma) found along both Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Sea urchins are called oursins de mer in French.

Sea urchins are globular, while sand dollars are disk-shaped, but neither have arms. Spines are very long in sea urchins and much smaller in sand dollars. The giant red sea urchin can grow to around 20 cm in diameter, while the common sand dollar typically measures less than 10 cm in diameter.

Sea urchins and sand dollars have a complex chewing mechanism, called Aristotle lantern, consisting of a series of muscles moving five teeth up and down to masticate food. Most sea urchins are omnivores, browsing on algae or any animal matter encrusted onto the substrate using their Aristotle's lantern teeth, while sand dollars use their tube feet to collect fine food particle suspended in the water. They have separate sexes and fertilization occurs externally.


Campbell A: "Spiny-skinned Invertebrates". In: The Encyclopedia of Underwater Life. Edited by Dawes ACJ: Oxford University Press; 2007.


Images provided below were obtained from: Encyclopedia of Life. Available from
Giant red sea urchin
© 2012 California Academy of Sciences
Supplier: CalPhotos
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network
Green sea urchin
© National Museums Northern Ireland and its licensors
Supplier: Encyclopedia of Marine Life of Britain and Ireland
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network
Purple sea urchin
© Don Loarie, licensed under a Attribution License license:
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network
Common sand dollar
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Creator: Fisheries and Oceans Canada
This map is based on occurrence records available through the GBIF network
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