LITTLE RIVER, Calif. — In many parts of the world, uni is a delicacy. The pasty yellow food comes from the sea urchin, a spiny ocean kelp eater. The shellfish is often consumed at high-end Japanese sushi bars, but every June chefs up and down the Mendocino coast tantalize the taste buds of tourists during the annual Urchin Festival.
Urchin is native to California and Mendocino County is in no short supply of them. In fact, the ocean floor is covered with them and if you are looking to harvest some for yourself, one of the easiest places to pluck them out of the water is at Van Dam State Beach in the town of Little River.
Harvesting uni does require a little work. Greg Fonts is a spear fisherman, but when he's harvesting sea urchin, all he needs are some gloves and some giant knives to cut the bristly shellfish open.
“There are dozens of ways to do this, but I like brute force,” said Fonts as he chopped open a purple urchin.
The only edible part of the sea urchin is the uni, the yellowish-orange stuff inside the hard spiky shell, and the traditional way to eat it is raw. Raw uni is an acquired taste that Mendocino County hopes can be acquired by tourists because there is an overabundance of sea urchin.
“This is what we are trying actively to remove from the ecosystem," said Noyo District harbormaster Anna Neumann, "these purple sea urchin.”
The reason Neumann and others want the purple sea urchin gone is because they are eating up the coastal kelp forest fish and other aquatic life need to live in. Purple urchin are native to California coasts, but sometime around 2014 a warm water eddy moved into the Mendocino and Sonoma coast. It wreaked havoc on the ecosystem and caused important sea life to move out of the kelp forest to colder water.
“They all started feeding and they all started breeding. So, we really got this perfect effect that allowed the purple urchin abundance to just absolutely skyrocket,” said Neuman.
Purple urchins are devouring the kelp forest, which is hurting the fish population. At the same time, the area is recovering from sea star wasting syndrome which killed the purple urchin’s main predator, the 20-arm sea starfish. With natural predators out of the equation, humans have to step in.
“The whole situation prompted the festival. What I like is that it combines my two favorite things: Discovery and food," said Cally Dym, owner of the Little River Inn and Restaurant and one of the main organizers for Mendocino County’s Urchin Festival, an event encouraging people to eat uni.
Conservationists, scientists and the fishery industry are all working together to reduce the purple urchin population. There is no one solution, but eating their way out of Mendocino County’s sea urchin problem can’t hurt.
“We want to feed people and educate them as well,” said Dym.
FIND MORE FUN FISH TALES ON THE BACKROADS: In the balmy waters of Salt Creek lives a school of pupfish, Death Valley’s largest fish.