A De­li­cious Plague



Why we should be eat­ing more pur­ple urchins

We launch our kayaks at dawn from a pris­tine, shel­tered cove and pad­dle about a quar­ter-mile up the pin­na­clestud­ded Men­do­cino coast­line to a craggy reef just offshore. Our mis­sion is to scan the bot­tom of the Pa­cific for trou­ble­mak­ers, and we know we’re cer­tain to find them. To pre­pare for my free­d­ive, I float mo­tion­less on the sur­face and sink into the rhythm of my breath­ing: In­hale two counts, ex­hale slowly for 10, pause for two, re­peat. A few rounds of this aquatic uj­jayi slows my heart rate down to about 50 beats per minute. I take one last breath, fill­ing my lungs top to bot­tom, be­fore flip­ping up­side down to be­gin my de­scent.

A few fin strokes later, I join Ja­son Jaacks, an award­win­ning doc­u­men­tary film­maker and pho­tog­ra­pher (and one of my clos­est friends), who is al­ready near the ocean floor, cap­tur­ing some estab­lish­ing shots with a cam­era en­cased in crys­talline plex­i­glass. I pause at a boul­der, and over his shoul­der spot a group of perch play­ing tag. A ju­ve­nile cabezon is per­fectly cam­ou­flaged as a finny lump on a nearby bed of coralline al­gae, and a black rock­fish is peck­ing at some­thing invisible in a sandy crevice.

Above the wa­ter, North­ern Cal­i­for­nia is a for­ager’s

paradise. The coun­try­side is so abun­dant with wild ed­i­bles that even a year af­ter a zom­bie apoca­lypse, you’d still be able to gather most of the in­gre­di­ents needed to re-cre­ate what­ever sea­sonal salad was trending around the Bay Area just be­fore­hand with only hik­ing boots and some clip­pers. But with a snorkel and a wet­suit, it gets even bet­ter. Af­ter a sin­gle dive on the Sonoma-men­do­cino coast, you can clam­ber back onto the beach car­ry­ing your weight in mus­sels, rock crab, goose­neck bar­na­cles, Dun­geness crab, abalone, rock scal­lops, nori, sea snails, and sea cu­cum­bers. Even the wa­ter is a de­li­cious, ready-made brine—a per­fect court bouil­lon for poach­ing hand-har­vested ed­i­ble trea­sures. But some­thing is miss­ing here in this patch of ocean. Some­thing is eerily off.

When I first started div­ing here, the area held tow­er­ing forests of kelp, the fastest-grow­ing or­gan­ism on Earth. These un­der­wa­ter forests played a per­fect par­al­lel to the land­locked red­woods and coastal cy­press that shel­ter the morels and wild fen­nel on shore. My friend Aaron Koseba taught me to free­d­ive a few years ago when we

were work­ing on menu de­vel­op­ment for Sin­glethread, a Ja­panese-in­flected wine-coun­try res­tau­rant in Healds­burg, Cal­i­for­nia, and needed fresh in­gre­di­ents for our tri­als. But Aaron and I have watched this coast­line change at a break­neck pace over just a cou­ple of years. To­day, as Aaron and Ja­son trace the gen­tle slope of a mas­sive pin­na­cle down­ward into a rift in the ocean floor more than 30 feet below me, ev­ery­thing they pass is choked with a spiky shag car­pet of rest­less, click­ing spines. There are no sway­ing fronds and firmly rooted kelp stalks, like the ones that an­chor the rest of the Pa­cific Coast food chain. There are only the well-honed spikes of pur­ple sea urchins, the shuf­fling, in­sa­tiable hordes re­spon­si­ble for this bar­ren moon­scape.

Mas­sive en­vi­ron­men­tal crises usu­ally come with heart­break­ing im­ages of moun­tain­ous trash heaps, black­ened fac­tory smoke­stacks, and leaky, cor­roded bar­rels of toxic waste. But one of the big­gest en­vi­ron­men­tal threats these briny, idyl­lic wa­ters has ever faced stems from some­thing vi­brantly pur­ple-col­ored, pleas­antly sym­met­ri­cal, and stun­ningly de­li­cious: urchins.


of sea stars and sea cu­cum­bers, in­habit ev­ery ocean on Earth and can oc­cupy ter­ri­tory from shal­low tide pools to cav­ernous trenches miles below the sur­face. Years ago, be­fore I started div­ing for them or cook­ing with their creamy re­pro­duc­tive or­gans (col­lo­qui­ally re­ferred to as roe or by the Ja­panese as uni), I’d al­ways as­sumed from sushi menu prices that urchins would be scarce, like truf­fles of the sea. This is true in some re­gions, such as the wa­ters around Nova Sco­tia, where dwin­dling pop­u­la­tions in re­cent years have made green urchins a pre­cious, hard-to-come-by treasure. But to­day, on the West Coast, pur­ple urchins are not. Like their larger, more com­monly served red urchin cousins (which of­ten look more pur­ple­black than red), the pur­ple Strongy­lo­cen­tro­tus pur­pu­ra­tus flour­ish ev­ery­where from Van­cou­ver to Baja. Though their lovely col­ors may sug­gest oth­er­wise, urchins are hard­core crea­tures: vault­like orbs of re­in­forced cal­cium car­bon­ate cov­ered in hun­dreds of ball-and-socket-jointed spines that form a rip­pling con­veyor sys­tem to drag food to­ward their rugged, five-toothed beaks. These ma­rine wood chip­pers buzz around the ocean floor on le­gions of flex­i­ble tube feet that line their un­der­sides. They feed mostly on al­gae but are op­por­tunis­tic eaters, and their beaks can ex­ca­vate ev­ery­thing from co­ral to rock to steel beams. Yet the cov­eted, ed­i­ble sacks of pale or­ange roe within these liv­ing cham­bers—which taste like but­ter cul­tured from fresh, deep sea­wa­ter—are as del­i­cate and frag­ile as egg yolks.

Mem­bers of a healthy, bal­anced com­mu­nity of urchins live fairly soli­tary lives. They bur­row into crevices and dine on a var­ied diet of what­ever scraps of de­cay­ing al­gae, an­i­mals, and plants the tide im­pales on their spines. When an urchin pop­u­la­tion ex­plodes, how­ever, as is likely to hap­pen when­ever cli­mate change or other hu­man-cat­alyzed chaos dis­rupts the lo­cal food chain, a dis­torted hive mind takes over. They con­gre­gate in sub­ti­dal hordes, ac­tively con­sum­ing ev­ery­thing in their path, in­clud­ing the hold­fast tis­sue that an­chors kelp to rocks. Even af­ter oblit­er­at­ing an en­tire kelp for­est, urchins won’t eat themselves to ex­tinc­tion—they just switch back to munch­ing on the tidal drift. A sin­gle one can also live for 70 years.

Ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife, over the past four years, about 90 per­cent of

all coastal kelp from San Francisco to Ore­gon has been mowed down by a pur­ple sea urchin pop­u­la­tion that is 6,000 per­cent larger than his­toric av­er­ages. This is, of course, at least par­tially our fault. Hu­man-gen­er­ated cli­mate change is real, and warm­ing ocean tem­per­a­tures struck its first ecosys­tem-wide blow by weak­en­ing and thin­ning es­tab­lished kelp beds, which thrive on the rich nu­tri­ents avail­able in cold, deep wa­ter. Add to that a bru­tal one-two punch of toxic red-tide al­gae and a seastar-killing virus, and the urchins’ most ef­fec­tive nat­u­ral preda­tors have been ef­fec­tively re­moved from the equa­tion. Thriv­ing kelp forests help an­chor the bot­tom of the West Coast food chain by pro­vid­ing abun­dant sus­te­nance and shel­ter to dozens of species. The bar­rens left in the urchins’ wake are bald, scarred ghost towns. The en­tire ecosys­tem is un­moored.

With the kelp gone, any­thing that tries to com­pete with the urchins for food is in se­ri­ous trou­ble. Wild-caught abalone, which de­pend on kelp as a main­stay of their diet, are al­ready off the menu—the CDFW closed recre­ational abalone fish­ing in­def­i­nitely late last year af­ter the pop­u­la­tion plum­meted due to star­va­tion. Vir­tu­ally all other nearshore West Coast fish and shell­fish species that don’t di­rectly feed on kelp but rely on kelp for shel­ter (or feed on those that do) are next in line. When the or­gan­isms that de­pend on kelp are knocked out, it will light a fire that blazes straight up the food chain.

The si­t­u­a­tion seems bleak, but there is still hope for re­cov­ery. Ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle posted on the CDFW web­site, “The urchin bar­ren con­di­tions may persist un­til the pres­ence of suf­fi­cient preda­tors, dis­ease, or storms re­duce the ex­plod­ing urchin pop­u­la­tion.” As the most ef­fec­tive preda­tors the world has ever seen, we could be a part of the so­lu­tion.


helped with this kind of prob­lem be­fore. Com­mer­cial urchin fish­eries in the 1980s re­versed sev­eral urchin bar­rens that had ex­isted for decades, since we hunted sea ot­ters—another urchin preda­tor—nearly to ex­tinc­tion in the late 19th cen­tury. Apart from a cou­ple of years in the early ’90s, when we sold nearly 700,000 pounds of pur­ple urchins to chefs in Ja­pan, com­mer­cial fish­eries in the U.S. have his­tor­i­cally fo­cused on red urchins.

Pur­ples are smaller than their red cousins, top­ping out at about 3 to 4 inches across, and typ­i­cally yield smaller amounts of the ed­i­ble roe. Still, pur­ple urchin roe is some of the most del­i­cate, unique, and ver­sa­tile seafood in the world. Pair that with the fact that, as cooks, we’re more cu­ri­ous, cre­ative, and re­source­ful in the kitchen than we’ve ever been, and a golden op­por­tu­nity arises for cooks and con­sumers to go af­ter pur­ples. As of 2017, there were 300 li­censed com­mer­cial urchin divers in Cal­i­for­nia.

“I’d al­ways as­sumed from sushi menu prices that urchins would be scarce, like truf­fles of the sea.”

Un­like fish, sea urchins have no skin and there­fore there is no bar­rier be­tween ocean wa­ter and their tasty in­sides. In or­der to avoid be­com­ing oceanic raisins from a life im­mersed in brine, urchins for­tify themselves with a fla­vor­ful cock­tail of sa­vory, sweet, and salty amino acids, sug­ars, pro­teins, and min­er­als. In the kitchen, those pro­teins and lipids make uni a great thick­ener and emul­si­fier, and the amino acids and sug­ars help the roe caramelize when baked or roasted. The re­sult is a mul­ti­pur­pose in­gre­di­ent that, in terms of ver­sa­til­ity, lands some­where be­tween roasted gar­lic, eggs, and av­o­ca­dos.


rest of Sin­glethread’s two-miche­lin-starred crew have come up with dozens of ways to weave the unc­tu­ous­ness of uni into their dishes. Uni-en­hanced ponzu and béchamel, en­riched brioches and bis­cuits, and urchin­driven fer­ments are also ap­pear­ing at res­tau­rants such as the Wil­lows Inn in Wash­ing­ton state and Smyth in Chicago. The cre­ativ­ity of these chefs in pre­serv­ing sea urchins might also hold the key to trans­form­ing a frag­ile, per­ish­able prod­uct into some­thing more sta­ble that can reach a wider au­di­ence. Imag­ine a fish sauce made from ren­dered uni that tastes like a deep, oaky shoyu of the sea; uni bottarga that can be shaved onto pasta like aged Parme­san; or uni vine­gar. Lore has it that a French chef’s toque con­tains one fold for each method of cook­ing an egg. Sea urchins de­serve their own hat.

Res­tau­rant chefs are set­ting a great prece­dent for how to com­bat en­vi­ron­men­tal crises through culi­nary in­ge­nu­ity, and we can fol­low their lead. My mind drifts to­ward an idea for uni fon­due as I catch my breath for a few min­utes on the sur­face, a mesh bag bulging with about 20 urchins buck­led around my waist. It took only three dives to get them, and my next breath is even more pro­duc­tive. As soon as I reach the bot­tom, I grab an urchin with each of my gloved hands. A door­knob-style twist is all it takes to pull them off the rock, and I snap them past the elas­tic band on my hip bag be­fore grab­bing three more from a short kelp stump. I feel my chest start to tighten with the urge to breathe, so I forgo the bag and start to pick urchins rapidly with my right hand and stack them like spiky coast­ers on my left arm. To keep from los­ing any­thing, I breach the sur­face belly-first like a large, grace­less ot­ter, and I pile 11 urchins into an empty space in my kayak. In just un­der an hour, Aaron, Ja­son, and I have each gath­ered all three of our le­gal daily urchin lim­its. While com­mer­cial divers har­vest and sell pur­ple urchins, even ca­sual ocean en­thu­si­asts can help: With a $48-per-year fish­ing li­cense, any­one in Cal­i­for­nia can grab 35 of them per day. It’s rare that a mush­room for­ager has that kind of luck.

Back at the cove where our day started, we haul ev­ery­thing on­shore and empty the urchin bags into two ag­gres­sively worn cool­ers. Be­tween a cook­out tonight and some recipe test­ing to­mor­row, this batch will be gone within 24 hours. But a few buck­et­fuls of fresh sea­wa­ter will keep urchins alive and healthy for a cou­ple of days.

Even­tu­ally, the pur­ple urchin mis­sion will re­quire re­straint, as the fren­zied swell of a food trend can eas­ily spin out of con­trol (see bluefin tuna, the Pa­cific pop­u­la­tion of which has dwin­dled to un­der 3 per­cent of its his­tor­i­cal av­er­age). There’s noth­ing in­her­ently evil or alien about sea urchins in these wa­ters, and eat­ing them to ex­tinc­tion would be just as cat­a­strophic. We’ve de­vel­oped suc­cess­ful sys­tems for con­trolled feed­ing in other in­dus­tries: In Sonoma and Men­do­cino, wine­mak­ers bring sheep into their vine­yards in win­ter and spring to mow down tasty weeds be­tween the rows. As the grapes ap­pear, the sheep are shuf­fled on to other pas­tures be­fore they can do any dam­age. We can learn from this in­land fi­nesse how to re­spon­si­bly in­dulge in the abun­dance at hand in the sea.

Coastal author­i­ties at any time might change reg­u­la­tions to al­low recre­ational har­vest and dis­tri­bu­tion of pur­ple urchins in greater num­bers, or—even­tu­ally— fewer. The si­t­u­a­tion is an ever-chang­ing one. Right now, it’s our duty to eat mas­sive quan­ti­ties of one of the most ex­quis­ite del­i­ca­cies on Earth, while al­ways pay­ing at­ten­tion to the ex­perts who will tell us when we’ve done our job and it’s time to move on to the next pas­ture.

On a brisk morn­ing on the Men­do­cino coast, the au­thor and chef Aaron Koseba of Sin­glethread res­tau­rant scout out a quiet spot to be­gin the day’s dives.

From left: A free­d­ive is the sim­plest way to hunt for pur­ple urchins, which in­habit rock for­ma­tions all along the Pa­cific Coast. A gen­tle twist with a gloved hand is all it takes to re­move them from their perch.

The limit on pur­ple urchins is 35 per day—seen here in the arms of chef Aaron Koseba— enough for a boun­ti­ful, uni-filled feast.

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