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A Shrinking Harvest : Once-Despised Urchins Now a Lucrative Catch, but State Rules Are Limiting the Annual Take

August 29, 1993|GORDON DILLOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COASTAL — Veteran diver Vince Puleo offers a simple explanation for why the state Department of Fish and Game cited him for possessing undersized sea urchins.

They shrank.

"Hey, urchins are like anything else," said Puleo, 50, who has been diving for sea urchins off the Southern California coast for two decades. "When something dies, it shrinks. If you die, you're gonna shrink. When an urchin dies, it's gonna shrink."

Fish and Game officials scoff at the so-called "shrinkage defense"--but more on that later. The ironic thing about the case against Puleo, and dozens of similar cases in California in recent months, is that 20 years ago it would not have been considered a crime at all.

On the contrary, back then the killing of sea urchins, regardless of their size, was considered a public service.

But times, and markets, change. Now, the once-despised red sea urchin is one of California's most important and lucrative sea crops, with annual harvests running up to 50 million pounds.

That has stirred concerns about overfishing, prompting state officials and the urchin industry itself to take steps to limit the annual catch.

"It's mostly a preventive measure," Dave Parker, a senior marine biologist for the Fish and Game Department, said of the new regulations that took effect last year. "It was thought that it was better to do it ahead of time, before the fishery was endangered, rather than wait and have a crisis develop later."

"We had to do something," said veteran urchin diver Leonard Marcus, 39, of Santa Barbara. "It was a case of, if we don't regulate the fishery now, we won't have one in the future."

*

Sea urchins are ball-shaped, spine-covered bottom feeders that belong to the same marine animal group as sand dollars and starfish. Before the early 1970s, they generally were considered a pest because they sometimes overgrazed the kelp beds that are vital for other marine life. At times the overgrazing was so extensive that it created so-called "urchin barrens," large areas of ocean floor that were almost devoid of marine life.

In the late 1960s, state officials gave a commercial kelp- harvesting company in San Diego permission to dump lime on urchins to kill them; another method was to send divers down with hammers to smash the urchins.

Then someone realized there was this thing called sushi.

"People have been eating sea urchins for eons," said John Duffy, a senior marine biologist for the Department of Fish and Game. "Not just in Japan. In the Mediterranean, the Italians and the French have been eating them for thousands of years."

The Japanese, however, eat more sea urchins--or rather, a specific part of sea urchins--than any other people in the world. The part they eat is called the "roe," as in fish eggs, but that really is an industry euphemism, much like calling snails "escargot." The "roe" actually is the sea urchin's sex organs or gonads, which account for up to 10% of its weight. The roe is removed, soaked in sea water and eaten raw; the Japanese call the finished product uni .

The realization in the early 1970s that the Japanese would buy California sea urchins sparked an urchin boom in Southern California. Although the price the Japanese would pay was low, 10 cents a pound or less, the volume an urchin diver could easily harvest was tremendous. It was not unheard of for a single diver to haul in 15,000 pounds of urchins in a single day. And because the sea urchin business was virtually unregulated, almost anyone with a boat, an air compressor and a diving suit could get in on it. All that was required was to dive down and start plucking urchins off the bottom.

Statistics compiled by the Fish and Game Department illustrate how quickly California's sea urchin industry developed. In 1971, the first year statistics were compiled, 200 pounds of sea urchins were "landed" in the state; in 1972, that figure increased to 76,000 pounds. But in 1973, about 3.5 million pounds of sea urchins were landed.

The figures continued to climb: 7.5 million pounds in 1975, 16.5 million pounds in 1977, 26.3 million pounds in 1981. Landings began declining after that as the so-called "virgin stock" of sea urchins in Southern California--urchin colonies that had never been fished before--were depleted. But they shot up again in 1986, to 34 million pounds, as Northern California was opened to sea urchin fishing. In 1988, a record 52 million pounds of whole sea urchins, worth more than $50 million, were landed in California.

Urchin divers sell their catch to processors, who remove the roe, pack it in wooden trays and air-ship nearly all of it to Japan. More than 90% of the California sea urchin harvest is exported to Japan, where an eight-ounce tray of "uni" wholesales for about $30, or $60 a pound. A few years ago there were more than 20 sea urchin processors in California, including about 10 in the South Bay-Long Beach area. All but a few of the processing plants are Japanese-owned.

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