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Stung by heavy competition from Russian traders, Southeast Alaska's dive fishermen are trying to figure out how to save their urchin fishery from possible extinction.
Fishermen like Tom Carruth, 36, of Ketchikan, have spent their lives pulling the spiny creatures from their kelp pastures to feed Japan's hunger for "uni" - the urchins' roe.
Carruth moved to Alaska about a decade ago to harvest urchin year-round. He tried California and Maine, but he believed Alaska offered the most stable lifestyle for a full-time dive fisherman.
He hasn't changed his mind, but he and his dive buddies are turning out less often to harvest urchin. Instead, they are focusing on the more lucrative geoduck and sea cucumber fisheries.
"We're not pursuing urchin as hard," Carruth said.
The statistics of the urchin market decline are rather grim.
The number of processors in Southeast Alaska handling urchin roe for the Japanese market plummeted from 13 to two between 1996 and 2004.
The number of dive fishermen participating in the urchin fishery declined from 150 to 40 in the same period, according to state statistics.
In 2004, about 44 percent of the urchin harvest quota was left unharvested and the average price hovered around 32 cents per pound. It had been 40 cents in 1999.
The reason for the decline is not complicated.
"We pretty much pack a lot of B-grade product," said Mark Barnes, plant manager of Ketchikan-based Coastal Fisheries, the only full-time processing plant handling urchin roe in Southeast Alaska. The other plant in Craig, Do-Jo Seafood, operates part-time.
Japanese consumers prefer their urchin roe to look, feel and taste a certain way. But Alaska's product can get a bit mangled. It is partially processed in Ketchikan, flown to Washington in small planes and fully processed in Tacoma before it is shipped to Japan. Along the way, it gets man-handled, especially when off-loaded in Seattle from Alaska's small planes, Barnes said.
"Quite frankly, the boxes get thrown around. The fisherman takes the brunt of the hit," Barnes said.
In contrast, since the late 1990s Russian fishermen have been pulling up to Japanese docks with tons of high-grade urchin caught off Russia's southeastern coast.
"It's kind of hard to compete with that when you are here in Southeast," Carruth said.
Several steps are being taken by processors and the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association to find ways to make Southeast's urchin a more marketable product.
The Tacoma company Pacific Urchin Products, which owns Coastal Fisheries, is sending its labor to Mexico, where it will open a new processing plant, Barnes said. Labor costs will be slashed by two-thirds, he said.
"They'll pack in Mexico and ship from San Diego," Barnes said. "It would be nice if we could do everything here (in Ketchikan). That would be perfect." But it wouldn't work because of the chronic troubles with shipping from Southeast Alaska, he said.
The Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association plans to undertake an economic study in 2005 to explore ways to revive the fishery.
"We're going to do anything we can to kickstart it and make it more efficient," said SARDFA executive director Julie Decker.
"We need to break this downward price spiral. That is what we hope the study will tell us - why the price spiral and things we can do to increase the price," Decker said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.