Uni, or roe from sea urchins, is a popular delicacy with many sushi lovers.
Alaska has urchin fisheries each October in Southeast and Kodiak, but they attract little interest from divers. A harvest of just under 3 million pounds of red urchins is allowed at Southeast, but that is based on older surveys of the stocks.
“That’s a little bit of a ghost guideline average level, because there aren’t that many sea urchins still here.”
Phil Doherty is co-director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association.
Since the 1980s and 90s the bulk of the sea urchin beds have been wiped out by sea otters.
“That’s the number one factor in the lack of production in Southeast Alaska, and there’s nothing that’s going to happen here in the foreseeable future that’s going to change that.”
A second reason, Doherty says, is difficulty getting the delicate uni from the softball sized urchins to Japanese markets in top condition.
“And the Japanese market is very particular on how seafood looks and uni is one of them. So it’s very difficult to crack open the urchins and get the roe out and pack it and have it look good and then put it in special containers and get it onto the airlines and get it over to the Japanese market, which is the main market.”
In 2015, the most recent Southeast harvest of around 700,000 pounds of red urchins, a handful of divers got 49 cents a pound.
Green urchins that are found around Kodiak are preferred over the reds. But a lack of markets also has stalled fishing interest there. There’s been no urchin harvest since 2001.
“It’s not that the harvest stopped because we had concerns about the stock – it was largely market driven and there are still green urchins out there to be had. I think the major barriers for even a small scale fishery is finding a market and getting them there in good condition.”
Nat Nichols is area manager for the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game at Kodiak.
In the 1980s, he says landings of the hockey puck sized green urchins reached about 80,000 pounds. Now the harvest limit is 40,000 pounds. No divers have signed up for the fishery.
Nichols says urchin uni is more familiar to U.S. buyers now than in the past and there perhaps might be interest from more local markets.
“If you could develop a smaller local market, that would alleviate the issue of getting bigger loads of product in good condition. That might spur more participation.”
Nichols says he’s interested in working with anyone who wants to resuscitate the urchin fishery.