Wednesday August 31, 2022

The Mendocino Voice

Marcos Aban and Ken Gerken spend several days each week diving 80 to 90 feet below the water’s surface off the North Coast, catching as much red urchin as they can. Aban’s career began as a tender on an urchin boat in the late nineties; Gerken started diving in Southern California in the eighties. This fishery was a booming business then. Now, the state is waiting for approval on a second federal fishery disaster declaration to free up funds for struggling processors and fisherman, and Aban’s boat — on which Gerken joins up for dives — is one of the only vessels consistently fishing for red urchin out of Noyo Harbor. 

“The last five years have been the hardest years for me since I started,” Aban told The Mendocino Voice on a sunny day outside the Pacific Rim Seafood building in early August. It was around 2 p.m., and he and Gerken had done three dives that day, spending about 25 minutes harvesting urchin each time to collect around 500 pounds total. In the early 2000s, higher numbers of urchin meant easily bringing home 1,000 pounds, for a price of between 50 cents and $1 per pound. But the price “has been changing a lot” based on the amount of uni – the edible gonads of the urchin – and how deep divers go to get it; the return lately can range from between $1.50 and $3 for one pound of urchin, Aban said, but the total amount of urchin caught is always far less than it once was. That week urchin had also been “skinnier,” making for less lucrative hauls. 

Diving to sell commercial urchin has always been a specialized business; special training and equipment is necessary. But the overpopulation of purple urchin — for which there’s no commercial market — following strong El Niño years, waters warming from human-caused climate change, and area bull kelp all but dying off in 2014 has meant dramatically fewer returns and forced divers deeper. Kelp is the main food source for urchin, though a hungry urchin will sometimes eat barnacles, Aban explained, leading to worse-tasting uni. 

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