Alaska has urchin fisheries each October in Southeast and Kodiak, but they attract almost no interest from divers.
A harvest of just under 3 million pounds of red urchins is allowed at Southeast this year, but that may not be a true representation of the stock.
“That's a little bit of a ghost guideline average level, because there aren't that many sea urchins still here,” said Phil Doherty, co-director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association in Ketchikan.
Since the 1980s and ‘90s, Doherty said 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,” he said.
A second reason for the disinterest is the difficulty getting the delicate uni from the softball sized urchins to Japanese markets in top condition. Uni, or roe from sea urchins, is a popular delicacy with many sushi lovers.
“The Japanese market is very particular on how seafood looks and uni is one of them. 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 Japan, which is the main market,” he explained.
The most recent Southeast harvest of around 700,000 pounds of urchins in 2015 was taken by a handful of divers who got $0.49 a pound.
Green urchins that are found around Kodiak Island are preferred over the reds. But a lack of markets also has stalled fishing interest there and no harvest has occurred since 2001.
“It’s not that the harvest stopped because we had concerns about the stock. It was largely market driven. I think the major barriers for even a small-scale fishery is finding a market and getting them there in good condition,” said Nat Nichols, groundfish and shellfish manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Kodiak.
In the 1980s, Nichols said landings of the hockey puck-sized green urchins reached about 80,000 pounds. Now the harvest limit is 65,000 pounds, but no divers have signed up for the fishery. Urchin uni is more familiar to U.S. buyers now than in the past, Nichols said, and perhaps there might be more local interest.
“If you could develop a smaller local market, it would alleviate the issue of getting bigger loads of product in good condition. That might spur more participation,” he said, adding that he is interested in working with anyone who wants to revive Kodiak’s urchin fishery.