Sea urchins caught off the Australian island of Tasmania are gradually becoming popular in Japan, competing with local fare mainly from Hokkaido.

While imports have been limited to those from such countries as Russia, Tasmanian sea urchins started arriving at Tokyo’s Tsukiji wholesale food market in mid-February.

They had been shipped to Japan in the past but failed to gain a foothold mainly because of difficulties with freshness, according to sources familiar with the market.

After urchins caught off Tasmania began to rise last year, however, a Japanese fishery teamed up with a local seafood-processing plant to export them freshly to Japan by shortening transport times and adjusting the saltiness of the water used to ship them.

“Sea urchins from Tasmania are less sweet than those caught off Japan, but their quality is quite good because of their creamy taste and delicate ocean smell,” said an official of Tokyo-based marine wholesaler Tohto Suisan Co., which handles 40 to 50 kg of Tasmanian sea urchins a week. “They have started getting a good reputation,” the official added.

Their wholesale prices stand at ¥1,200 to ¥1,300 per 100 grams, which is 30 to 40 percent lower than Japanese sea urchins.

An official of an izakaya (Japanese pub) in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, said the meat of Tasmanian sea urchins is “solid and has a light taste.”

“Orders from young customers are increasing because they are relatively reasonable,” the official said, adding it plans to procure more.

Currently available is a type of sea urchin caught off Tasmania’s northeast coast, an official at a fishery company said, noting that the season in the area will continue until around the end of June.

A different type with a better taste will be caught southeast of the island between July and December, and the expectations of wholesalers at Tsukiji as well as restaurants are growing, industry sources said.