Sea Urchin

The fishery

Pacific Sea Urchins are a shellfish prized as a delicacy around the world for their briny, fresh ocean taste and unique texture. Two types of sea urchins are commercially harvested in British Columbia. Red and Green Sea Urchins. They are handpicked by highly skilled commercial divers. Particularly loved among chefs, the sea urchin gonads are commonly known by their Japanese name as “Uni” adds an umami flavour to any dish.

Both the Red and Green Sea Urchin fisheries are co-managed by the Pacific Urchin Harvesters Association (PUHA), which represents the Red Sea Urchin and Green Sea Urchin licence holders. Working closely with the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), PUHA promotes sound practices and management of the urchin fisheries within BC. Their goals are to encourage sustainable and responsible use of the resources, promote high quality at all stages of production and to collaborate effectively with DFO, Parks Canada, the Province of BC, Coastal First Nations and other interested parties to optimize economic returns while ensuring sustainability of BC’s nearshore marine resources for future generations.

About

Red Sea Urchins are the largest of the five species of Sea Urchins occurring in BC waters. They are found on rocky substrates along the West Coast of North America from the Alaskan Panhandle to Baja California in Mexico. They range in depth from near surface to at least 280 metres deep. Red Sea Urchins, like all sea urchins, have separate sexes and are broadcast spawners. Red Urchins are sexually mature and ready to spawn once their shell reaches 50 mm in diameter. Spawning occurs from March to September depending on environmental conditions such as water temperature and light levels. Red Sea Urchins can live well over 100 years. Green Sea Urchins are smaller than Red Urchins, but they have a larger geographical distribution. They are found in Pacific waters from Puget Sound in Washington and northwards through BC and Alaska and around Japan, Russia, and Korea. Green Urchins are found in rocky, gravel, or shell substrates at depths ranging from the intertidal to more than 1,000 metres.  They reach sexual maturity when they grow to 25 mm in diameter, spawning occurs in between February and March.

Sea Urchins are grazers that feed primarily on kelp and other macroalgae. Sometimes, however, their abundance rises to a point that they overrun and devour kelp forests, turning previously productive areas into areas that are referred to as “urchin barrens”. This generally only happens when there is a disappearance of a major predator, which affects their population dynamics.

The harvest

Sea Urchins are harvested by commercial divers that working from near surface to depths of 20 more than metres. Sea Urchins are individually hand-picked, so there is zero by-catch and zero impact on the sea floor. The Urchins are placed into a bag that holds approximately 50 kilograms of Urchins. When the bag is full, the diver will signal to the crew and the bag will be hauled on to the dive vessel. Full bags are replaced by the tender on surface with a fresh empty bag, so the divers are only minimally interrupted.

Divers collect Sea Urchins along areas referred to as “feed lines” to find areas with the best roe quality. When the Urchins are landed, a third-party monitor weighs and documents, and thereby validates, the catch for each vessel and deducts the total from the licence holder’s individual quota. This ensures there is no overfishing in any given area. The minimums Test Diameter (TD) for legal size for Red and Green Sea Urchins is 90 mm and 55 mm. Green Sea Urchins are harvested on both the West and East coasts of Canada while Red Sea Urchins are only found in the Pacific. In BC, the Green Sea fishery is limited to the South Coast region around Vancouver Island while the Red Sea Urchin fishery extends to all parts of the BC coast. The Red Sea Urchin fishery is about 10 times the size of the Green Sea Urchin fishery and their values reflect that difference in size.

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Sustainability

PUHA and DFO collaborate intensively and cooperatively to ensure both the Red and Green Urchin fisheries are sustainably managed. They work together to use a precautionary approach based on conservative harvest quotas. Both fisheries are limited entry, with 49 and 110 eligible licences for the Green and Red Urchins. Every licence holder is given a set proportion of the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for their respective species each season, which limits the number of pounds they can harvest. All catch is validated by an independent company, D & D Pacific Fisheries Ltd., in a program that is fully funded by members of PUHA. The validation ensures that Sea Urchin licence holders do not exceed their Total Allowable Catch each year. The vessel master must also be in possession of a DFO approved catch validation and harvest Logbook assigned to each Sea Urchin licence holder.

PUHA conducts annual biomass surveys in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries, First Nations, and other stakeholders to better understand the Sea Urchin population dynamics, stock size and age structure. This research ensures the commercial harvest is always sustainable and conservative. Members of the Pacific Urchin Harvesters Association fully fund the sustainability measures including logbook documentation and dockside monitoring. They also contribute to the survey as well as other research efforts. Members of the PUHA have the highest commitment to resource management.

When

The Red Sea Urchin fishery operates year-round. The fishery opens and closes based on market demand and completion of area quotas, but the highest market demand is during the winter. The fishery slows down in the summer as the quality of the roe decreases when the Urchins begin to spawn. The highest quality roe occurs between October and May. The Green Sea Urchin fishery operates year-round. Most of the quota is fished in the fall and winter. The best roe from Green Sea Urchins is harvested between October and February, after which the quality decreases as they start spawning in the spring.

When

The Red Sea Urchin fishery operates year-round. The fishery opens and closes based on market demand and completion of area quotas, but the highest market demand is during the winter. The fishery slows down in the summer as the quality of the roe decreases when the Urchins begin to spawn. The highest quality roe occurs between October and May. The Green Sea Urchin fishery operates year-round. Most of the quota is fished in the fall and winter. The best roe from Green Sea Urchins is harvested between October and February, after which the quality decreases as they start spawning in the spring.

Where

The Red Sea Urchin fishery takes place along the whole coast of BC and licences are designated between the North and South coast. Approximately 80% of the quota for Red Sea Urchins is in the North coast licence area. Fishing on the North coast occurs in remote areas with multiple dive vessels fishing together in an area and then transferring their catch daily onto a larger “packer” vessel, which travels to and from port to offload their catch and to bring supplies to the fleet. In the South coast licence area, vessels usually fish alone since there are multiple offloading ports available. South Coast Red Sea Urchin harvesters are generally able to fish during the day and return home in the evening. The Green Sea Urchin fishery is much smaller and takes place on the East Coast of Vancouver Island from Sooke to Port Hardy and typically viewed as a day fishery.

The market

Red Sea Urchins are harvested by divers, validated, and then delivered to processing plants where the gonads are extracted, treated, graded and packaged, primarily for export to Asia, Europe, and North America. Green Sea Urchins are harvested by divers and shipped whole and live, mainly to Japan. Uni is becoming increasingly popular among chefs and seafood lovers, with international markets growing and diversifying each year.

Uni is best served raw but can also be gently cooked in dishes. It has a custard-like consistency and buttery texture, which makes it great for sushi. Lightly cooked, uni can be tasty in pasta sauces and is a delicious enrichment to bisques, bouillabaisse and other seafood medleys.  For more information on Sea Urchin, head to https://puha.org