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A Shrinking Harvest : Once-Despised Urchins Are Now a Lucrative Sea Crop, but State Rules Limit the Take

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 the past 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.

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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.”

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“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, since 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 you had to do was 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.

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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 of them in the South Bay-Long Beach area. All but a few of the processing plants are Japanese-owned.

The price of sea urchins increased dramatically in the 1980s, largely because of the Japanese economic boom. Whole sea urchins that sold for 10 cents a pound in the 1970s now bring an average of about $1 to $1.20 per pound. A single diver working his own boat can make about $70,000 a year or so, before expenses.

Vince Puleo, who lives in Ventura County but sometimes works out of San Pedro, owns two boats and usually has a couple other divers working for him. He says he grossed $97,000 in one month in 1987--his best month ever. His average gross in recent years, he says, has ranged from $350,000 to $500,000, although out of that he has to pay his divers and maintain and operate his boats.

In recent years, however, the California sea urchin industry has fallen on relatively hard times. The annual harvest started to decline in 1990, largely because the virgin stock had been exhausted, and the industry had to turn to urchin colonies that had already been fished. Concerned that the sea urchin crop might be threatened, the Fish and Game Department, in conjunction with the urchin industry, had already started implementing new regulations to limit the catch.

The number of licensed urchin divers, which had hit a high of more than 900 in 1987, was frozen and the issuing of new licenses restricted, the ultimate goal being to get the number of licensees down to 400. Currently, there are 544 licensed divers and 79 “apprentice” divers in California, according to the Department of Fish and Game.

Last year, the minimum legal size for sea urchins was increased from 3 inches in diameter to 3.25 inches in Southern California. Also last year, the season for urchin fishing was shortened.

The regulations succeeded in helping to reduce the urchin harvest. Urchin landings last year totaled 32 million pounds, down about 40% from four years earlier. For the urchin industry, that has meant a dramatic drop in business.

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“The glory days of urchin diving are past,” Marcus said. “When I started back in the 1970s the average take was about 3,000 pounds a day; now the average is about 700 or 800 pounds a day.” Although the per-pound price is higher, he said, “Of course it (regulating the urchin industry) is costing us money.”

Nevertheless, Marcus said he enthusiastically supports the regulations.

“They’re a wonderful resource,” Marcus said, “and if given half a chance there’ll be an urchin fishery in California for the next 50 years.”

“It’s tight right now,” said Warren Hoffman, manager at Catalina Offshore Products Inc. in San Diego, one of the oldest urchin processing companies in the state. “We’re just barely making it.”

Hoffman said that a few years ago his company was processing 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of urchins a day; now they handle about 5,000 pounds a day, and their work force has been cut from 90 people to about 60.

Part of the problem, Hoffman said, is that Japan’s economy is down, lowering the demand for California “uni.” (Japan has its own domestic urchin fishing industry that supplies much of the country’s needs; also, sea urchin industries in New England, Chile and other countries are posing competition for California.) But the new regulations also have had an effect.

“There’s a lot of urchins out there,” Hoffman said. “The regrowth has been great. But they aren’t going to be big enough (to legally take) for another two years or so, so we’re going through a two-year drought.”

Hoffman said the urchin “drought” already has forced several urchin processors out of business. But he added that, “If we can gut it out for two years, we’ll be fine.”

The new regulations also have meant more heat from game wardens.

“Our wardens have been putting more effort in urchin enforcement,” said Gordan Cribbs, patrol chief for the Fish and Game Department’s Region 5, which is headquartered in Long Beach and stretches from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. Cribbs said 16 citations for possessing undersized urchins were issued in his region last year, four times more than three years ago.

Cribbs said game wardens make random checks of urchin catches as they are unloaded at the dock, measuring a sample to see if any are under 3.25 inches in diameter, not including the spines. The regulations allow an urchin fisherman to have no more than 30 undersized urchins or “shorts” in his possession. Violations are misdemeanors; offenders also lose their entire urchin load, which usually is worth more than $1,000. The catch is sold and the proceeds given to the Fish and Game Wildlife Preservation Fund.

A Carson urchin fisherman, Raymond Arthur Sosa, already on probation for an earlier urchin violation, was recently fined $1,725 and sentenced to 10 days on a Caltrans work crew. He also lost an urchin load worth $1,260, according to the Los Angeles city attorney’s office.

Puleo was cited Jan. 25 for possessing more than 30 shorts in a load--221 shorts to be exact, Puleo said, out of a load of 1,300 pounds of urchins. But Puleo insists those urchins were 3.25 inches in diameter when he collected them, saying he has scientific evidence to prove that they shrank after they were taken out of the water.

“I’m not going to plead guilty to taking shorts, because I didn’t,” he said. He added that he, too, supports restrictions on urchin fishing to protect the industry, but he said that reducing the number of urchin fishermen, not rigid size limitations, is the best way to conserve the fishery.

Fish and Game officials are not buying Puleo’s shrinkage defense.

“That excuse is used for every species that has a size limit,” Cribbs said. “We hear it all the time.”

Times staff writer Janet Rae-Dupree contributed to this story.

Spiny Delicacy

The once lowly red sea urchin is now one of California’s most sought-after seafood products, but concerns about overfishing have prompted regulators to reduce the catch.

Size: Up to 8 inches in diameter; marketable size is 3.25 inches to about 5 inches.

Lifespan: 25 years or more.

Food: Prefer brown algae, such as giant kelp, but also will eat other marine vegetation.

Mating: Urchins spawn by releasing eggs and sperm into the seawater. A female can release millions of eggs in a spawning cycle.

Range: On the West Coast, from central Baja California to Alaska.

Predators: Humans, sea otters, some fish species and spiny lobsters. Source: California Department of Fish and Game


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