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Fishery disaster declared for Mendocino Coast red sea urchin divers, processors

Relief may be on the way for the diminishing ranks of an obscure commercial seafood industry on the Mendocino Coast, where divers eager to cash in on what was once a newly profitable crop were drawn by the hundreds to participate just three decades ago.

The red sea urchin fishery - already substantially smaller than in its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s - has been devastated by the recent collapse of the bull kelp forest and the related invasion of voracious purple urchins, smaller cousins with no commercial value that have taken over the ocean floor.

Red urchin landings in 2016 and 2017 in the northern sector of the fishery fell by nearly 80%, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office.

The five-year average annual catch value of $2.6 million from 2011 to 2015 had dropped to $577,254 by 2017, according to the governor’s office, not counting losses to fish processors and related services in the Fort Bragg area, where most of the work occurs.

Since then, “it’s not getting better,” said David Goldenberg, executive director of the California Sea Urchin Commission. “Each year gets worse and worse.”

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross declared the northern red sea urchin seasons of 2016-17 federal fishery disasters on Wednesday. They were among several disasters so designated, including the California Pacific Sardine Fishery of 2017-19 and the Yurok Tribe’s Klamath River Fall Chinook salmon commercial season in 2018.

The more productive Southern California red ?urchin fishery centered around the ?Channel Islands was not included in the disaster declaration.

The Commerce Department’s decision sets in motion a lengthy process through which the needs and processes for disaster assistance will be determined, leading to some type of presumptive aid for the few divers and fish processors who remain in the North Coast after years of decline in the fishery.

But there’s also hope that funding may become available for continued efforts to try to restore balance to an ecosystem thrown into chaos by a series of large-scale environmental stressors over the past eight or so years that scientists have described as “a perfect storm.”

“We’ve lost hundreds of miles of kelp canopy, so I think the best we can hope for right now is to use the funds appropriately and smartly for fishery restoration, and also to help the fishermen that have been hurt financially,” Goldenberg said.

The handful of active red urchin divers left include Pat Downie, 63, whose son, Grant, also harvests urchins, though both have recently spent more of their time working to remove purple urchins from specific coastal waters through the nonprofit Noyo Center for Marine Science.

“We had a bunch of golden years, and in the last four years, it’s just steadily got worse and worse and worse, because there is no kelp,” he said.

The senior Downie was diving for urchins in Southern California before he moved north to virgin hunting grounds in 1987 as part of a “gold rush” that was soon producing 20 to 30 million pounds of red urchins off the North Coast each year, landed primarily in Fort Bragg, as well as Albion, Point Arena, Bodega Bay and several smaller ports.

The intense pressure quickly threatened to overwhelm local stocks until new restrictions and permitting requested by the commercial fishing interests brought stability to the situation, Goldenberg said.

By the mid-2000s, divers were having to find new ways to extend their range into deeper waters, taking greater risks, to find enough red urchins to meet demand, Downie and fellow diver Jon Holcomb said.

But nothing prepared them for the complete decimation of the fishery in recent years, after seastar wasting disease killed off key predators and purple urchins overran the ocean floor, consuming nearly every blade of bull kelp in sight. The result was large expanses of ocean floor bereft of plant life for invertebrates like abalone and red sea urchins.

The commercially viable red urchins, harvested for their reproductive organs, or uni, are sold mostly for Japanese culinary uses, especially sushi. But they have value only if the creatures are getting enough food to produce sufficient yield. And the only way for them to eat is to reduce the load of purple urchins competing for food, Holcomb said.

“There’s no return to red abalone or red urchin,” said Holcomb, 74. “There’s no future in either, until the kelp comes back.”

Downie wonders these days if he did the wrong thing encouraging his son to join the profession.

“We’re both all in. We have three boats in our family, and he’s talking about selling the boat and getting out of the fishery,” Downie said, emotion evident in his voice. “And it’s been a really good thing for him, but the last three years to four years, it’s just turned into something I’ve never seen before in my whole life of being an urchin diver.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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