Demand for sea urchin roe, known as Uni, has taken off as the number of sushi bars has quintupled in the space of ten years.
"Uni is a fashionable yet affordable seafood with an international and intercultural attraction," said Vern Goehring, executive director of the California Sea Urchin Commission.
The rising tide of Japanese cuisine in the US has stimulated local demand for fresh sea urchin harvested from California coastal waters. Until recently, all California Uni was exported to Japan.
But today, approximately one-third of the more than 800,000 pounds of local Uni remains in the states and is consumed in Japanese restaurants throughout the country, earning processors significantly higher prices.
California Uni, consumed in the US, has a wholesale value of approximately $9 million. Exports, which represent twice the tonnage, generate approximately $12 million in international trade.
Ensuring the sustainability of this industry is therefore a matter of economic as well as ecological concern. As a result, the California Sea Urchin Commission recently launched a new research initiative known as the "Barefoot Ecologist," a data collection program that utilizes divers' knowledge, vessels and time to support comprehensive sea urchin management.
"With innovative programs such as the "Barefoot Ecologist", the California sea urchin industry has become a model for other fisheries," said Dr Chris Dewees, California Sea Grant Fisheries advisor, University of California, Davis.
The California Sea Urchin Commission has also initiated efforts to educate consumers about the nutritional value of California's sea urchin.
"It is a naturally healthy product, selectively harvested and processed in an environmentally sensitive manner with keen attention to public health standards and natural resource protections," said Goehring. "Most people have never eaten California Uni or at least they may not be aware that they have. One of our goals is to get people to give it a try."
This Sunday, the Commission is joining with the Japanese Restaurant Association to sponsor a California Uni Recipe Contest at the 6th annual Japanese Food Festival.
The California Sea Urchin Commission was formed last year to protect the ocean environment, ensure a sustainable sea urchin resource and a reliable supply of quality seafood product. The Commission operates under state law, with oversight by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
The newly formed Commission formalizes and expands efforts to protect the ocean and the sea urchin resource undertaken by the industry since its birth three decades ago.
During the 1960s sea urchins, due to their heavy grazing of kelp, were considered a threat to fisheries that depended on a healthy kelp forest. They were deemed such a threat that programs were undertaken to systematically eradicate sea urchins from California coastal waters.
But in the 1970s, fishing regulatory agencies and some in the commercial fishing industry began exploring the economic viability of a sea urchin industry in California.
The industry has grown to become an important part of the coastal economy in California. The industry is centered in Santa Barbara and Ventura. Sea urchin diving takes place throughout California from San Diego to Fort Bragg, excluding the Central Coast. More than 300 divers work on nearly 180 vessels and sea urchin processors employ close to 900 people.