From the outset, there isn’t anything terribly sexy about sea urchins. The most glamorous thing to be said for these members of the Echinoidea family appears to be that they were named in honor of the Middle English nomenclature for hedgehogs.

But these hedgehogs of the sea have a more glamorous mythology and place in the world marketplace than their spiny, virtually inexpressive exteriors would suggest. Long believed in many cultures to be an aphrodisiac, sea urchin meat is widely considered a mark of luxurious living when served as roe (or \”uni\” in Japanese cuisine, specifically sushi). While \”roe\” often refers to fish eggs of the caviar variety, in the context of Echinoidean entrees, we’re talking sex organs.

An unlikely delicacy

Their savory status was slow in coming to the States. Early on, \”sea urchins were seen as a pest in California,\” explains Vern Goehring, executive director of the California Sea Urchin Commission (CSUC). \”The Department of Fish and Game undertook some programs to eradicate them. [Urchins] were impacting the kelp beds. If the kelp beds are overly grazed by sea urchins, that’s detrimental\” to other kelp-dwelling species.

\”They were like locusts in a sense, there were just too many of them,\” Dan Williams, a commission member and diver with 26 years’ experience. He recalls a time when various methods of controlling the urchin species — including some recreational divers indiscriminately taking hammers to the spiny creatures — were used.

\”The National Marine Fisheries recognized this was a product that was used in Japan. In 1972, the [California] fishery began.\”

At the height of urchin harvesting’s popularity, when the Japanese economy was booming and demand was great, Japanese importers appeared to favor American urchins.

\”We had the quality that they liked: Our urchins were real similar to their urchins. They had a real limited amount in their domestic waters,\” says diver Jason Woods.

Permits to harvest urchins were issued through the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) with relative ease, and while the getting was good, the demand for permits was high.

But there was a downside to this apparent seafloor wealth. Says Goehring, \”There was too much pressure on the resource, too many people combing the bottom of the ocean. Legitimately, [fishermen] were concerned that if the volume of sea urchins available were split amongst 800 people versus split amongst 300 people — $80,000 versus $10,000 a year [per diver] — it was an issue of economic sustainability.\”

As divers worried about the future of their industry, a representative body under the California Department of Agriculture was proposed. After going to vote in 2003 and 2004 among processors and divers, an overwhelming majority of the industry supported what would become the California Sea Urchin Commission.

\”The purpose of the commission is to work on behalf of both the industry and the public,\” says Goehring. \”[The commission] can engage in scientific analysis and data collection of the status of the sea urchin resource, and use that to recommend strategies to [the Department of] Fish and Game.\”

The commission consists of five representatives from seafood processors, five divers (each of whom represents one of California’s ports) and one commissioner-at-large who represents the public.

Williams is proud of the work his commission and the state at large have done.

\”As fisheries go, California’s fishery has been one of the most proactive and forward-thinking. When all these extra permits were put in, California pushed for an emergency moratorium. We’ve spent years, almost a decade, trying to get the fisheries back to a level that’s sustainable economically and environmentally.\”

To that end, the DFG attempted to whittle down the number of permits in existence. As a result, permits for sea urchin harvesting are hard to come by. Woods was in a lottery for his for nine years. This might explain why most licensed divers aren’t quick to retire their permits: Most of the active divers are in their 50s and even 60s. At 36, Woods appears to be one of the youngest guys in the local business.

Slowly, as divers decide not to renew, the number of permits dwindles. For every 10 unrenewed permits, one is put into the lottery. In 2006, there were only 318 permits in California.

Aquatic harvesting

The lifestyle would appear attractive to most sea enthusiasts: an average work week of four days out on the ocean. But the work is painstaking. Sea urchins are harvested by hand, with divers using scuba equipment to enable them to root through kelp beds.

Woods explains the daily process of harvesting: Using a 30-foot boat, he travels down the coast, often to the Malibu area, and visits San Nicholas, Anacapa or Santa Cruz Island. Looking for thick kelp beds — the thicker the kelp, the better the roe quality — he will dive alone or with one or two other divers.

\”When we’re down there diving, there’s just tonnage down there, beds and beds of urchins. We trim off the big ones, kind of like mowing the lawn every once in a while. You don’t pick every urchin off the reef. There’s tons of small- and medium-sized ones you leave behind.\”

That’s due to DFG regulations that stipulate an urchin must be no smaller than 3.25 inches across. Each urchin harvested is measured by a gauge on the diver’s picking rake.

Harvested urchins are loaded into large bags and floated to the surface. After fully loading up, the boat will return in the evening and be met by a refrigerated truck sent by the Los Angeles-based processing company Woods sells to. The urchin haul is transferred from boat to truck using a crane.

Although this is an all-day process, Woods estimates that he spends an average of three hours diving. Anything more, and nitrogen buildup in the bloodstream becomes a significant risk.

At the processing plant, urchins are extracted from their shells using assembly line methods. There is a cracking room where the urchin is broken in half, a spooning room where the roe is removed and put into solution and a third stage where roe is fully removed and trimmed and made to look uniform. It is then graded based on color (the lighter, more \”banana colored,\” the better; darker roe is considered of lower quality), then put into trays and shipped to the marketplace.

Gone are the days of the salty fisherman

\”All of California’s commercial fishermen are extremely professional,\” says Woods. \”The days of the pirate type, dregs-of-humanity fisherman are gone. Those guys couldn’t compete for the last 10 years.\”

Much of the industry’s professionalism, Woods explains, is due to increased regulations and a general understanding of preserving the resource. Harvesting sea urchins isn’t a matter of putting on a scuba mask and grabbing as much as you can carry. Harvesters dive \”only the first three weeks of the month,\” explains Woods, and only Monday through Thursday.

Once they dock, \”The Fish and Game will show up at the dock to measure the catch. You’re only allowed to have 30 short urchins,\” or urchins under the 3.25-inch limit. \”Even if you get 1,000 pounds, there can be no more than 30 short urchins. It’s pretty tightly enforced.\”

The penalty for harvesting too many urchins below the minimum measurement?

\”Fifteen-hundred bucks. But worse than that is a mark on your record. [Eventually], Fish and Game will look to revoke your permit. They look at it like poaching.\”

The changing economic landscape

For all the trouble, sea urchin harvesting isn’t the boom industry it once was. Although Goehring estimates that harvests in the last three years have averaged 10-12 million pounds yearly (with Ventura County’s ports, collectively, ranking second in California for urchin production), Woods reports that sea urchins only fetch $0.70 a pound in the current market.

\”Fifteen years ago, it was twice that much.\”

Recently, as Russian and North Korean markets caught on to the viability of the sea urchin industry, American fisheries have been edged out of the Japanese market. Russian fisheries specifically have a far lower cost of production than their American counterparts, due in part (Williams and Goehring agree) to a relative absence of regulation in Russian harvesting.

In addition, the increased cost of fuel, coupled with insurance rates that have \”gone through the roof\” since 9/11, as well as the cost of renting a boat’s slip, makes for a less lucrative career.

\”It’s barely worth doing right now, except the resource is so strong,\” explains Woods. \”Anacapa, Santa Cruz — a good diver can pack 1,000 pounds a day.\”

While the competitive market has been a sizable economic blow to American divers (many, like Williams and Woods, cope by diversifying and harvesting sea cucumbers and live fish), it has meant that more roe of greater quality has become available in U.S. markets.

An easy balance

Many divers choose to stay in the game, if only to keep a foot in an industry they hope will show signs of economic recovery. And by observing restraint in harvesting, Williams points out, California sea urchin gatherers have created a \”green fishery.\”

\”One of the issues in a lot of fishing is ‘bycatch,’ \” he explains, adding that when using nets, only 20 percent of the catch might be the target species. \”But we harvest by hand.\”

\”We’re keeping sea urchins from overpopulating, eating all kelp. We’re preserving the environment, the kelp, with no bycatch. We have consistency of supply; now it’s just a matter of getting market interest.\”

And as it is in a diver’s best interest to respect the delicate ecological balance of the sea floor, Williams points out that those in the fishing industry are ultimately in league with environmentalists.

\”In essence, fisherman should be considered like the canary in the mine: Where they are constantly in the environment, underwater, they have probably the best knowledge [of] the resource.\”