sea urchins in decline

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Posted by on February 20, 2005 at 15:42:10:

FORT BRAGG, Calif. (AP) - The sea urchin, for many years Mendocino County's top ocean crop, has seen a steady decline in catch value that threatens to crush the area's once vibrant industry.

Sold primarily in Japanese sushi restaurants where they are known as uni, the area's urchins fetched just $456,000 last year, down from a a high of $8.4 million in 1991.

Harvests along the north coast have dropped so low they can barely support the two remaining urchin processors. Eleven plants operated there in 1988, the industry's peak.

"I'm still trying to determine if there's enough diving effort to keep the plant alive," said Bob Juntz, owner of Ocean Fresh Seafood Products, the region's oldest urchin processing facility.

Japan's seemingly endless hunger for sea urchins fueled a harvesting boom in the 1980s, when divers began scouring the ocean floor for urchins. That led to a steep decline in the urchin population along the North Coast, and regulators stepped in the late 1980s to limit the harvests.

While the urchin population has stabilized, the industry has recently been hit hard by competition from other countries.

Divers harvested 2 million pounds of urchins valued at $1 million in 2003, down from 4.4 million pounds valued at $2.8 million the previous year, according to county crop reports.

Last year, the numbers further plummeted, to 1.2 million pounds worth $456,000.

Harvesters hope that improvements in the quality of the urchins and an improved marketing campaign could help revive the troubled industry.

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