Western Business: Urchins still a stable fishery in Southeast Alaska

Posted: Monday, May 05, 2003

KETCHIKAN - Every so often, a fishing boat sidles up to a dock just south of downtown Ketchikan to offload its catch.

The harvest isn't salmon or halibut. Nor are there any geoducks, black cod or crab aboard. Instead, the nets swing up to the dock filled with hundreds and hundreds of red sea urchins.

Although the boats are few, there are enough of them to keep this commercial dive fishery alive - and relatively well - in southern Southeast Alaska.

"I think we're over the hump as far as whether we can make this happen," said Steve Abernathy, whose Coastal Fisheries operates the small plant here where most of the urchins landed in the fishery are processed.

Key elements such as logistics, markets and product recognition have improved since the commercial fishery was reinstated in southern Southeast during the mid-1990s.

Yet one very hungry obstacle looms large: sea otters. Those critters love sea urchin suppers, and, after eating through the Sitka-area stocks farther north during the past decade, they're moving down the west coast of Prince of Wales Island.

"That would be the biggest problem I could see in the future," said Mark Evanoff, a longtime harvest diver who spends much of his year gathering urchins in Southeast.

For now, however, there are more urchins available in Southeast than fishermen are likely to harvest this season.

In fact, millions of pounds of urchins - more than half of the state-established quota - have gone unharvested in the past three years. In the season that began Oct. 1, fishermen have landed only about 1.2 million pounds of a 5.3 million-pound quota.

The reasons for leaving product on the fishing grounds are varied, but the central factor is the economics of supply and demand in Japan, the destination for most of the urchins harvested worldwide.

Soon after an urchin is harvested, it's cracked open and the five gonads are removed. These parts, known in Japan as roe or uni, typically are served fresh in sushi establishments.

"Because of the cost of uni and the limited shelf life, it's generally (sold) at the higher-end sushi restaurants," Abernathy said.

The quality of uni varies widely, he said. The product is graded on color, texture, size and taste, with perfect appearance commanding a lofty premium. In a high market, a 400-gram tray of top-grade uni can sell for several thousand yen while the lowest grade barely will fetch a couple hundred of yen.

The grading affects the Alaska product's success in the marketplace.

"Alaska (uni), in general, is not a high-grade quality," Abernathy said.

The big setback is visual appeal. Simply put, uni from Southeast Alaska urchins typically doesn't look as good as uni from some other sources. But fortunately for Alaska, looks aren't everything.

The taste gradually has been winning over consumers who might have first purchased Alaska uni because of its lower price. Now, customers are requesting the Alaska product more often, Abernathy said.

There are other, perhaps more difficult, hurdles to overcome, including the state of Japan's economy and competition from low-cost producers such as Russia. The market just isn't what it used to be, said Steve LaCroix, who was active in urchin processing in Southeast and now serves as president of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association's board of directors.

The Japanese economy has been stagnant for more than a decade while the value of the yen in relation to the U.S. dollar has not favored American producers, he said.

Also, the rise of capitalism in the former Soviet Union has brought more natural resources from Russia to the marketplace, and that includes sea urchins similar to those harvested in Japan, LaCroix said.

The marketplace is sensitive to supply. Abernathy said he's seen market drops of as much as 60 percent in a day when there's a flood of uni available. The best days for Southeast Alaska product are when foul weather keeps harvesters from fishing everywhere else, he said.

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