The sea urchin fishery is Oregon’s most valuable dive fishery, and the third most valuable shellfish fishery (far behind the value of Dungeness crab and pink shrimp).
The sea urchin fishery is an artisanal dive fishery, which targets red sea urchins, Mesoocentrotus franciscanus. Sea urchins are hand harvested, singularly, using a "urchin rake", there is no bycatch in the fishery. Small boats with multiple divers make single day trips to deliver live product. They are shipped live to processing facilities in neighboring states then primarily sold domestically.
The West coast sea urchin fishery began in California in the early 1970s. Prior to the availability of sea urchin markets, they were often destroyed and/or removed in California to protect valuable kelp resources. In the 1980’s a strengthening Japanese economy demanded sea urchins, a good yen/dollar exchange rate and dwindling Asian supplies made North America’s sea urchins a suddenly valuable resource. West Coast fishery boomed in California and quickly began in Oregon.
Sea urchins were first harvested in Oregon in Port Orford in 1986. Landings quickly escalated and peaked at 9.3 million pounds in 1990. During the peak years sea urchins were processed and packed in Oregon, where the fishery contributed millions of dollars to the local economy. These virgin stocks were quickly reduced and the fishery quickly reduced; by 1996 the fishery boom was over. From 1996 to 2015, fishery landings stabilized, currently characterized by a small number of divers harvesting about a half million pounds of sea urchins a year.
Some purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) have been targeted, but account for less than 1% of the 43 million pounds of sea urchins which have been harvested from Oregon since 1986.
California sea cucumbers are also covered by this permit, though harvest of this species has been extremely minimal historically.
Sea urchins are harvested by divers, using surface supplied air. Sea urchins are picked out with rakes and measured to assure legal size. Divers store urchins in brailer nets and lift them to the surface using float bags.
Resource management for sea urchins focuses on preserving high density areas for spawning in reserve areas and also allowing the multiple reproductive opportunities or cycles before they can be legally harvested.
Key regulations include:
- Sea urchins cannot be taken in water depths shallower than 10 feet mean lower low water.
- Each diver must have an Oregon sea urchin/ sea cucumber permit. (a total of 15 exist)
- Each diver must keep a logbook and return it to ODFW in each month sea urchins are harvested.
- Orford reef is closed from May 1 to October 31.
- Several areas such as marine gardens, research areas, and marine reserves are closed to harvest.
- Red sea urchins must be 3 ½ inches or larger in shell diameter (not including spines).
- No mixed gas (e.g. Nitrox) diving is allowed, only atmospheric air may be used.
Scott Groth- Marine Resources Program, Charleston
Phone: (541) 888-5515