By Allison Levine, Foodable Contributor
Sea urchin is the “new bacon.” It can be found on many Los Angeles restaurant menus, such as Salt’s Cure, L&E Oyster Bar, Connie and Ted’s, Guerilla Taco, Eveleigh, Hungry Cat, Vertical Wine Bistro and Animal. Mixed with scrambled eggs, on pasta, on toast, in tacos, it elevates any dish.
A substantial amount of sea urchin comes from California and the California sea urchin industry is heavily regulated to ensure the longevity of the resource. There is a minimum size limit, limited number of divers, limited days and times to dive. It is hard to overfish sea urchin but it is also difficult to obtain a license.
Meet Sea Urchin Fisherman Stephanie Mutz
One of the top purveyors is fisherman Stephanie Mutz of Sea Stephanie Fish. Stephanie is the only female sea urchin diver in California and a member of the California Urchin Divers Association. Raised in Newport Beach, Stephanie has been in Santa Barbara for 20 years. After attending UCSB, she worked there before receiving her Master’s Degree in Marine Ecology at James Cook University in Australia. While waiting for her degree to become official, Stephanie returned to California and worked as a deckhand for three years and then entered a lottery to own a license to dive for urchin. There are currently 300 dive permits but only 130 in use. She has been a sea urchin diver for eight years, while also teaching at Ventura College, and is involved in the politics of fishery.
Finding the Best Quality
Historically, in the 1960s and 1970s, sea urchins were a nuisance because they ate kelp, a nutrient that feeds fish and other organisms. People were paid to whack and kill them, making them a food source for other fish. There wasn’t a global market at the time, and in the 1980s, urchin divers went to Japan. But today, with their increased popularity, while urchins can be found anywhere, Santa Barbara sea urchins are the most sought-after because of their size.
Santa Barbara has the perfect water temperature, kelp cover (food) and rocky habitat where they live. Santa Barbara sea urchins can be harvested year round but the best months are August to January. Sea urchins spawn around February, reducing the size of the meat inside, but the faster they eat, the faster they recover. California has five species of sea urchins. We primarily eat the red urchin and sometimes the smaller purple urchin.
Sea urchins are caught one by one by diving down with a bag and a rake. Stephanie heads out to the Channel Island to dive at least two days per week and sometimes up to nine days in a row. Stephanie will dive 3-5 hours in a day and gather approximately 1,000 sea urchins. Dives are 10-60 feet deep and the fishing happens along the reefs. Unlike the scientific diving she did when she was a student, sea urchin diving is different. “It is harder mentally and physically as you lug against the current.”
Sea urchins are broadcast spawners, meaning they take lunar cues, and the females spew their eggs and males spew their sperm. The eggs and sperm fertilize in the water column and are washed to sea. They swim with the current and some settle on the wreath. Sea urchins must be 3-4 years old before they reach the minimum size limit (3 ¾ inches) and they can live to be 200 years old!
Sea urchins are related to sea stars and sea cucumbers and have radial symmetry (5 of everything). Sea urchins do not have eyes or a brain and cannot feel anything. They are primitive but have a very intricate neurological system. They use their tube feed (pedicellaria) to see, smell, move and breathe. The mouth is underneath and they will eat anything that passes by them, i.e. kelp, which they catch in their spine. Sea urchins taste like what they eat. The fresher they are, the sweeter they are. A lot of sea urchins are sold to a processor/distributor who adds alum and nitrates to preserve the sea urchin. This makes it taste more briny. But Sea Stephanie Fish sells fresh live sea urchins that can be eaten raw as sauces, steamed, grilled in the shell and sautéed.
Selling directly to restaurants and consumers, Stephanie is known for the quality of her sea urchins. Stephanie delivers to 20 restaurants from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and can be found at the Dorey Fleet Fish Market in Newport Beach on Saturdays.