Sea urchins from the bed of the Atlantic Ocean are served in Japan on another bed, one of rice. The roe inside their spiky scalps is a delicacy, which meets the tongue with a sweet tang and wiggles down the throat like milky tofu. But the Atlantic's sea urchins are disappearing. And a formerly $2.5 million-per-year Nova Scotian industry is disappearing with them.
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Tye Zinck chips the ice off his scuba mask, yells a warrior cry and lunges off the boat. Until he can slow his gasping, he floats atop the 40 degree water, the wind of Sambro Cove, Nove Scotia, biting at his ears. The seams of his dry suit are so thick that it looks inside out.
“To make sure it won’t leak!” he called over the rumble of the boat’s motor as he was zipping himself up. “You don’t want that water pouring down your ass cheeks in March!”
Dragging a cage that can trap about 30 urchins and a rake the size of a squeegee, Zinck thumbs a button on his suit and starts to sink. The captain and crewmember wait on deck, swaying in puddles of slush with their noses frozen clogged, the air creeping down their collars and numbing their pores. The deck clouds with fumes as the boat vibrates on the spot—shivering.
But Zinck no sooner bubbles back to the surface.
“Couldn’t find shit,” he mutters as he climbs aboard.
He has to try two more dives to spot any urchins, wasting time, propane, and body heat. Although Zinck used to earn up to $6,000 per week during the winter as an urchin diver, he'll make less than a third of that this year.
“They’re completely dying off,” says Zinck. “It’s drastic.”
Between 1997 and last year, more than 50 people became licensed and began fishing for green sea urchins in Nova Scotia, along with hundreds more in other urchin hubs like Maine and Boston. Most of them would hire a crewmember and one or two divers to venture the coves during the most brutal months of the year—when urchins are at their prime—scoring as much as $5 per pound for their catch.
“They call it the Green Gold Rush,” says Zinck, who began diving for urchins in Sambro, Nova Scotia, in 2008.
The demand for urchin roe, known as uni, continues to boom. While Japan is the primary market, posh American chefs have begun buying it to serve in "sea urchin cappuccinos," bruschetta, and pasta sauce.
However, the supply is dwindling continent-wide. In Nova Scotia, the catch dropped from about $2.5 million in 2000 to less than $890,000 last year. In Maine, the industry was once valued at $35 million annually but is now worth about $5 million. Although the die-offs in the U.S. have been caused primarily by over-fishing, Nova Scotian urchins are disappearing for a different reason altogether.
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“We got one, bud!” the captain yells to his helper when Zinck finally fills a cage of prickly treasure.
They pulley it up, bringing with it the sharp stench of the sea. They purse their lips and squint their eyes, shielding their teeth from the wind and their retinas from the sun.
The cage rattles with a mess of urchins, but they are not ready to go like they used to be. Instead, a stringy species of kelp clings to them like a weed tangled in barbed wire. The captain and crewmember have to pick the creatures out of this kelp, which has grown as an underwater barrier and is preventing the urchins from reaching their shallow feeding zones.
“Seaweed beds move around all the time,” says Robert Miller, an urchin specialist emeritus from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “Bad storms can transfer plants of all kinds.”
Although the department told Zinck that the kelp is a native species, he thinks otherwise. Zinck is 42 and has been diving in Nova Scotia for almost as many years, never having seen this plant before last season. He says that when he brought a sample to the department, the only recordings of it that they provided to him included pictures of penguins caught up in it.