As the new millennium approaches, North Coast urchin divers feel the fishery can yield a sustainable harvest for them as it now exists. They also recognize that the balance is fragile, and threatened by many state wide issues. Concerns include: oil production, development, and the potential for disaster, as Alaska witnessed with the Exxon Valdez; large scale coastline closures eliminating potential fishing areas and intensifying fishing efforts in open areas; predation by sea otters, which will eliminate all invertebrate fisheries within their foraging area. Each otter requires acres of near shore environment in which to feed and has the ability to swim up to 50 miles daily when the present food source area is depleted. Pollution from the ever increasing state population and the potential for disease to urchin beds is another great concern.
Added challenges for the California urchin diver are the restrictions created with and enforced by the California Department of Fish & Game. These include a minimum size limit, closed coastal fishing areas and specified fishing days: no harvesting during the month of July (North Coast), and extremely abbreviated fishing periods from April through the end of October.
The impact of these restrictions along with the weather conditions on the North Coast result in the average diver being able to work only 60 to 80 days a year in pursuit of urchins.
Urchin Harvesting Enhances the Near Shore Environment and Sport Fisheries
The sea urchin fishery, a “young” fishery, began in the 1970’s. Urchins became prolific in California, wiping out many coastal kelp beds that previously sheltered a rich ecosystem. It was named a “nuisance fishery” by the State of California Fish & Game Department. Recreational divers organized to destroy the urchin beds in various ways (such as pouring lime on them). Abalone and urchins compete for food and space. As the North Coast urchin fishery began, reefs were dominated by urchins, forcing, the abalone off rocks on to the sand and into the intertidal zone (area between high and low tides, such as tide pools). Abalone were then easy picking for thousands of people. Removal of urchins from the sub-tidal zone (below low tide level) has enabled abalone to again establish themselves in dense populations in available habitat, enhancing the world’s most viable red abalone sport fishery. Sub-tidal abalone act as a reserve supply to intertidal abalone, heavily harvested by sport fishers.
A Hazardous Occupation
A hazardous occupation, divers constantly battle large waves, heavy seas, strong winds, and powerful currents, especially on the North Coast. Urchins are most often (but not always) harvested in waters less than 100 feet deep. Careful consideration must be given by each diver to depths and times spent on each dive so as to avoid decompression sickness. Boats are anchored in and around the rocky coast to allow access to the rocky sea floor where urchins feed.
Urchin boats generally have 1 to 3 divers working at a time, and sometimes a “tender” who works on the boat assisting divers, loading the catch, and helping with most work “top side.” Divers spend long hours in the water breathing compressed air from hoses attached to fixed tanks on the boat. Tanks are continuously supplied by air compressors. Divers refer to this system as “hookah”. They dive to the ocean bottom and use a specialized “rake” to pluck the urchins off the rocks, and scoop them into net bags pursed at the bottom. The bags most often hold between 200 and 350 pounds of urchins. Loaded bags are floated to the surface by inflating a lift device by the diver’s underwater air supply. Then the heavy bags are moved to the boat by the diver.
Sea urchins, called “spineballs” by divers are animals of the phylum Echinodermata (spiny skin) cousin to the starfish, brittle star, sand dollar, and sea cucumber. A sea urchin resembles a pin cushion, lives on the bottom of the ocean, and prefers rocky terrain. It is a bottom feeder, favoring kelp, also the favorite food of abalone. Each urchin test, or “shell” contains 5 strips of gonads or “roe” the marketable product, ranging in color from yellow or orange (the most marketable colors} to brown (the least marketable color).
Processing the Product
Urchin boats arrive at the docks and offload the whole urchins either directly to a dock side processing facility or to a licensed weighmaster who represents an out of town buyer. In this case, the urchins may be trucked hours away before processing begins. Inside the processing facility, urchins are carefully cracked. The roe is removed, cleaned, treated with a light stabilizer/preservative, and then packed for trucking and air travel. Urchins are frequently at Asian markets within 48 hours of the fisherman’s arrival at the dock. A variety of factors ultimately determines the price a fisherman receives for his catch of urchins. These factors include: quality of each catch, competition in Asian markets, global competition and weather patterns (determining which harvesting countries are landing product), the exchange rate, and the market price itself, which changes daily.
Of Great Economic Value to Local Communities
The Sea Urchin industry is of great economic value to the North Coast. Monies generated from urchins landed go back into surrounding communities. It is estimated revenues generated through commercial fishing industries turn over within a community seven times. According to Fish and Game reports, 3.4 million pounds of sea urchins (in the shell) were landed in Northern California in 1998, with a wholesale value $8.2 million. Urchin harvesting produces jobs. One sea urchin boat may have as many as 4 people working on it. Processing plants employ many workers to off-load boats, crack, clean, and prepare the urchin “roe” for market.
A U.S. Export to Japan
The Japanese name for urchin roe is “uni” and is extremely popular in sushi bars around the globe. Helping the balance of trade, urchin roe is among the few US exports to Japan, one of the largest buyers of California “uni”. It is considered by the Japanese to be “the best” of imported products. Several other Asian countries also buy California urchin roe. “Uni” is gaining in popularity in US. sushi bars as well.
Along the spectacular North Coast of Marin Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte counties, the sea urchin fishery is one of the least talked about, yet highest income producing fisheries in California. It is of particular importance to the local north coast economies and especially to the communities of Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Sea urchins are harvested along the beautiful and rocky north coast shoreline by licensed commercial sea urchin divers and sold whole. In Sonoma County, the urchins are Landed at the port of Bodega Bay. In Mendocino County there are three ports at which urchins are landed: Point Arena, Albion, and Ft. Bragg.