The Great Sea Urchin Crisis

Invasive species and sushi lovers threaten to wipe the little creatures from the Nova Scotian coast. And with them, a $2.5 million industry.

Meagan Campbell

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.  

* * *

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.

Meagan Campbell
* * *

“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.

Meagan Campbell

“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.

“The last time I saw a penguin in Nova Scotia was never,” says Zinck.

Because he has only found the kelp in the approaches to harbours, which correspond to shipping routes, he thinks that it was transferred from another part of the world by ballast water—water that fills ships' empty gas tanks to balance their weight, and which often carries species between regions.

“No one will admit it’s an invasive species because it would bring up a whack of controversy,” says Zinck.

* * *

In a binder with rusted rings, the captain scribbles down the time that Zinck begins and ends each dive. Since the urchins are stuck at depths of around 70 feetit takes Zinck three minutes to sink that deepdiving for them has become risky for his lungs. Although he is supposed to surface every half hour for an equally long break, he often stays under for 40 to 50 minutes.

“We try to do everything safe,” says the captain, Dave Gray. “But safety is time, and time is money.”

The trade has also become more dangerous for Gray and the crewmember. Since they now have to rip the urchins out of kelp, they risk getting a poisonous spike lodged in a hand or eye. When the crewmember knocked one of the shells into his chin last November, his body produced a layer of meat around the spikes and formed a benign tumour.

“He looked like a damn porcupine,” says Gray.

Even if Zinck were not wearing walrus-sized flippers, he would be in no state to help with the sorting. On his break, he huddles in the gut of the boat, tossing with the turbulence but otherwise still, fighting to stay warm inside his dripping armour. Deeper dives mean colder dives, and Zinck's feet know frostbite like a diva’s know heels. He is equipped with more than one pair of battery-powered socks.

Meagan Campbell

“And a battery-powered mouth,” says Gray. “You should hear him on land—he never shuts up.”

At sea, Zinck does not talk; he does not eat. His eyes drift shut, his regulator dangling by his chin, his cheeks chafed from his mask and pricked by the wind. He may feel cold on his breaks, but he thinks himself toasty compared to the dives.

* * *

While Zinck scrapes urchins off underwater rocks, three rascals bounce around his living room at home, their mouths dyed purple from ring pops.

“I gotta keep the money coming in,” he says.

Zinck's kids are all under 10. One goes to school, while the others stay at their house in Prospect with his wife. For Zinck to make the same income as before the urchin decline, he works six or seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day, recovering shipwrecks, fixing barges, and repairing oxygen tanks at a dive shop. Because of the unpredictable urchin stocks and his other diving gigs, neither Zinck nor his wife can plan any vacations.

“The only thing worse than fishing is making up for it,” he says. “I’m hoping to get at least one more season out of it.”

The thought of his family is the only thing that prompts him to wrangle back into his gloves at the end of his break. With the clouds threatening to snow, the day has become the coldest of his urchin diving career.

In slow motion, he pulls his hands out of a Thermos—the contents luke warm after seven hours on the water—and slides his wedding band back over his finger, the rumbling engine reminding him that money is draining with every minute of delay.

A zombie, Zinck staggers to starboard once more. Crabs with curly yellow nails scramble out of his way, but a squirming starfish gets crushed beneath his heel.

With just a groan this time, he rolls over the boat’s wooden edge. As he flops toward the skin of frost, his face is impossibly peaceful. His eyes are shut, his shoulders relaxed—as if he were heading instead for a down-feather bed.

Meagan Campbell