The sea urchin, if you didn’t know, is a globular echinoderm in the class of Echinoidea, which is, as far as I can educate myself on the internet and from other bound paper summaries from educated scholars that predate ChatGPT (AKA books), this means something of a symmetrical ocean creature of very primary anatomical form.
Sea urchins possess a hard shell, with extruding external spikes used for movement and navigation, as well as self defense. Their closest ocean relative is the Sea Cucumber (a flaccid thing), which is like saying as a human that my closest relative is the sloth. Sea Urchins, much like the divers who harvest them, seem to be a breed apart too.
True to form, symmetrical in almost every aspect of their being, sea urchins have 5 identical gonads, golden orange culinary treasures that are the boon of a healthy diet of seaweeds and kelp. This roe, the “tongues” in tattooed chef bro speak, or “uni” in Japanese, “oeufs d’oursin” in French (eggs of the urchins, which is mirrored in Italian - uova di riccio), and in so many other “tongues” of the world, the urchin roe is rich, fatty, and briny, bearing a unctuous minerality unparalleled in oceanic gastronomic edibles. Grown men and women go to great depths to find and devour them, and not just the divers.
San Diego based diver Peter Halmay is one of the pioneers of the urchin fishery in the United States, and I was introduced to him at the Tuna Harbor Fisherman’s market by rock cod fisherman John Law.
Pete is definitely of the breed apart society, bearing a crusty demeanor as intimidating as the very urchins he dives for, coupled with a poignant sarcasm as slapstick and bittersweet as a tart glass of lemonade (think of John Lithgow’s ability to invoke fear while also possessing a comedy that flexes warm and sympathetic). Get to know the guy, and he proves to have a heart of gold driven by an enduring passion for the unpredictable, but charmed life, of the diver he leads.
Pete is in his eighties (and this guy still dives!), so his back story is long - stay with me here. Born in the 1940s in Budapest, Hungary, Pete’s prosperous family fled the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union, finding protection and eventually citizenship in Montreal, Canada. Pete attended McGill University, graduating as a Civil Engineer, and moved shortly thereafter with his wife to Los Angeles in the mid 1960s, working for an American firm doing projects internationally. “It was a dream,” he tells me, “to travel internationally, live in places for a couple of months at a time while doing a job, and coming home to a dynamic and fast growing part of the United States.” These were the Baby Boomer days of giddy American expansiveness, unchecked growth in consumption habits, and wealth and prosperity for a growing middle class.
Having a natural disposition against authority, the office soon proved an aggravation for the young Halmay, and in the late 60s he took a 2 year break to pursue a radically different path as an Abalone diver on Catalina Island. Life was grand for a bit, until the Abs started running low from overfishing. The markets were in flux at the time, and Pete had heard from a friend that the Japanese were beginning to look further afield for prized seafood specialities, and that sea urchins, an untapped commodity in the US, could be sent overseas in mass if the stock met Japanese taste.
Pete took off for San Diego with his family in tote, and became one of the many abalone divers to turn their attention to sea urchins. All of these developments happened in conjunction with two major political events that changed the commercial fishing industry in the US forever with the reverberations still being sorted out today. And so commences the really dry historical part of this entry, but also historically important if any of you out there are truly interested in this subject matter, and not just those held sway by the colorful pictures and the occasional off color remark peppered in there to resuscitate my generally vanilla writing style from becoming too mundane.
Firstly, Nixon’s detachment of the US dollar from gold in 1971 (Bretton Woods) allowed for other international currencies, particularly in Asia, to make gains, and therefore increase buying power. The Japanese, in particular, had more free capital to spend in international markets, and therefore the prospect of importing expensive fish commodities was more attractive then, even more than it is now. I didn’t think that was possible, given that their population has grown by 80 million since the 1970s. Oh well.
And secondly, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, or “Magnusson”, put a 200 nautical mile fishing restriction on foreign vessels operating near the vicinity of the territorial US. Japanese and Russian fishing vessels could no longer approach the rich waters near the California coast. The inverse effect of all of this was that Japan created its large centralized fish markets and began organizing international airfreight import activity spurred by feeding the demand for seafood from their interior population. Demand for US sea urchin in Japan, “LA Tongues”,as they were called, grew exponentially during this time.
50,000,000 pounds of urchin annually were sent off to Japan at the height of the market in the late 197Os and early 1980s, and growth of the industry went unabated. But then, in 1986, Bam! Pow! Crash noises! Japan suffered the price asset bubble in that year, leading to a decade of economic turmoil, and all that airplane filled with uni over the Pacific money went away with it. The urchin fishery in the US largely went away, and those who continued to dive, like Pete, turned their attention to seafood restaurants and sushi shops within the local US market - “the open mindedness of a couple of receptive owners (like Aphotic Restaurant, in SF),” Pete tells me. But mostly, the urchin divers left the industry.
The current urchin fishery on the West Coast witnesses levels that hover around 5 million pounds in landings annually, so quite different then the heady days of the 70s and 80s, with the key difference being that the main consumer is now local - the export commodity transitioned into a niche market, with understandably radically different price points. What used to be 80 cents a pound for urchins sold as a commodity is now 8-9 dollars a pound; current prices depend on Pete’s mood, I am convinced.
All throughout his arduous and whimsical journey of 50 years, Pete has always maintained a sort of proud optimism in the face of adversity, unpredictable conditions, and increasing regulation posited by woefully ignorant bureaucrats. Though the urchin fishery remains fairly untouched by some of the meddlings of the department that regulates fishing permits in the Golden State, CA Fish and Game, access to permits for people who want to dive for urchins is limited to just 300 statewide (There are 40 million Californians - just a reminder). Pete’s son Luke, for example, grew up in the trade, learning from his father since the age of 5, but had to wait 7 years for the opportunity to open up to get an urchin diving permit of his own to work alongside his father. Both Halmay's still dive, but Luke accounts for 75% of the urchins landed, and is the future of their small business, so it would seem natural to anyone that this familial transition should be smooth and unhindered. Not to the state of California, apparently.
In the hay day, Pete had his own boat, a 35 foot charger that had ample room to store the thousands of pounds of urchin that was needed to source the commodity market for Japanese consumption. Since the turn of the tide, Pete now commands a 25 foot Parker motorboat that looks rather like a Boston Whaler that my own father takes out for a cruise once a year on the tepid waters of Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota. Given what I know of the turbulent Pacific, which is not a lake in the Mid-West, that 25 footer must bob like a pinata out there in straights off of Point Loma, and though perhaps unsinkable from a technical standpoint, the crew and everything else, once capsized by a sneaker wave, or just misguided navigation, might never make it back once cast astray in cold waters, unpredictable currents, or simply exhaustion at the end of a hard day of work.
This vessel, the FV Moti, is a leased vessel for Pete and crew, downsized from the 35 foot boat of large format urchin diving from a decade past. Pete leases this boat from some guy named Fritz, which works out for both because Pete doesn’t need to have any ownership responsibilities that come with a large boat, and Fritz probably makes enough in the deal to pay someone to maintain it for him. Moti, as his boat is called, is from the Hindu usage of the word, and means “pearl”.
In talking with Pete in respect to the name of the boat, he tells me that he never thought about it much. For me, this is actually quite strange, but makes sense. Too busy I guess to ponder a seemingly trivial thing such as a rented boat's name. But as I think about this later, I realize to myself that “Moti” or the “Pearl” is not trivial, and was likely named in such a way as to somehow clothe the boat’s importance from the view of the casual bystander. Pearls, after all, are jewels developed from grains of sand that form in recesses of a mollusk. And what Pete does for a living is basically the extraction of other highly valuable treasures from ocean creatures, the difference being that his treasure is edible.
And Pete is himself, something of a treasure too. Given his long career and expertise in a dying trade, such talent and skill in a human would be codified as a living national treasure in Japan, or in France he would qualify as “patrimoine nationale” - the European equivalent. But in the USA, none of that shit really factors, so Pete remains in relative obscurity for most regular joes out there, hidden in plain sight like his boat, the "Pearl", a treasure revealed for those who dare to search deeper.
Peter J Hemsley