Sea urchins — those spiny creatures beach goers carefully avoid stepping on — are a hot commodity.
Sometimes too hot.
A sea urchin poacher was caught Jan. 7 when he pulled into Tacoma’s Breakwater Marina, just east of Point Defiance Park.
Officer Jake Greshock with the state Fish and Wildlife Department’s Central Sound Marine Detachment was watching the commercial diver from shore as he harvested green sea urchins north of the Tacoma Narrows bridges.
When Greshock checked the diver’s 1,500 pounds of sea urchins at the marina he found several under the minimum 2 1/4-inch size limit. He called in three other officers and Sgt. Erik Olson to help measure them.
When they were done, the officers found 1,088 of the prickly creatures under the size limit — about 15 percent of the diver’s catch.
The diver was cited for a gross misdemeanor, which is punishable by a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. The fine would equal the value of 50 pounds of coveted sea urchin innards.
“I jokingly say it’s urchin caviar, but it’s technically the gonads,” said Rus Higley, an instructor at Highline College and manager of its Marine Science and Technology Center.
Called uni by Japanese, sea urchin sex organs are a high-end staple of sushi bars and command prices around $100 a pound in the United States — if you can find it.
“Please note that high demand for this product often exceeds supply,” California-based seafood supplier Catalina Offshore Products notes on its website. Almost all of its sea urchin products were sold out Friday.
“I don’t love it but I enjoy it,” Higley said of the orange-colored uni sushi. “For a lot of people the texture is off-putting.”
Japan is where the Tacoma diver’s sea urchins were headed, Olson said.
At the main Tokyo fish market on Friday, prices for Japanese uni were as high $722 for 10-ounce packages. Prices have doubled in the last year.
The diver can’t claim ignorance of the law. He was cited for the same violation last year, Olson said. And the diver said he was unrepentant.
“That’s what he told us right then and there,” Olson said.
Green sea urchins range from California to Alaska, Higley said. They take about two years to reach maturity.
Sea urchins are echinoderms — cousins of sea stars, sand dollars and sea cucumbers. A sand dollar is basically a flat sea urchin, Higley said.
Olson is trying to get the law changed so that undersized sea urchins can’t even be taken off the sea floor. When they are, Olson said, they fill with air and won’t sink to the bottom.
“I’ve followed sea urchin boats where you’ve got a line of floating sea urchins behind it,” he said.