SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Fish Factor

Bottom Fell Out of Alaska Urchin Market



October 10, 2016
Monday PM

(SitNews) - Divers could pull up millions of pounds of sea urchins from Alaska waters each October, but the fishery draws little interest. The urchins are valued for their uni, or roe, used widely in sushi rolls and Asian dishes.

Southeast Alaska allows for a three million pound red urchin take, down from seven million pounds in the 1990s when 150 divers would be on the grounds. The actual harvest today is closer to 300,000 pounds taken by five to 10 divers, said Phil Doherty, director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association in Ketchikan. It was quality problems, otters and a huge dump of Russian roe over the past decade pretty much did the local fishery in.

jpg Urchin fishery harvest down

Red sea urchin
Photo courtesy Alaska Department of Fish & Game

“There was a problem in extracting the roe and packaging it up and getting it over to the markets,” Doherty explained. “It’s a fresh product and by the time it arrived in Japan, they weren’t real happy with the quality of the roe.”

The softball sized red urchins pay between 35 to 55 cents at the docks. Green sea urchins found around Kodiak Island pay well over $1 a pound, but no fishery has occurred there for 15 years.

Harvests peaked in 1988 at around 150,000 pounds taken by a dozen boats, then tapered off to just 27,000 pounds by the late 1990s, said Nat Nichols, area manager at Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak. He agrees that the bottom fell out of the Alaska uni market.

“It’s a real high end market,” Nichols said. “They’re looking for not only live urchins with high quality roe, but also really pretty urchins with no broken spines and things like that. It was difficult and not profitable to try and move urchins out of Kodiak in October.

Meanwhile, the ISF Trading Company in Portland, Maine lists live, whole green sea urchins at $4 a pound, and fresh uni at $10 for quarter pound trays.

This year marks the 25th year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaska’s seafood industry. It began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A daily spin off – Fish Radio – airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. My goal is to make all people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaska’s fishing industry to our state, the nation and the world. 

Laine Welch ©2016

Laine can be reached at msfish[AT]

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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

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