My dinner lay spread out beneath me in every direction, plainly visible in the crystalline waters. The rocky inlets and kelp forests of Central California’s eight Channel Islands are home to what is considered to be some of the finest uni, or sea urchin, in the world. To better see them in their natural habitat, I was sea kayaking off Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles offshore of the Santa Barbara Channel.
I’d decided on a day trip with Ventura-based outfitter, Island Packers. Confession: I grew up 30 miles south of the quiet coastal community (which is an hour’s drive from LA), but I’d never before visited the islands. It’s just one of those things on my to-do list that kept getting pushed aside, until a friend invited me to join him on a paddle.
Part of the Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz is the state’s largest island and a popular hiking, paddling, and camping destination. Seventy-six-percent of Santa Cruz is owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy, with the remaining 24-percent managed by the National Park Service. Along with nearby Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel islands, it’s a starkly beautiful place of desolate hills, wind-stunted Native Island Oaks, white sand beaches, tidepools and fossil beds, and rocky cliffs. Santa Cruz is also a popular whale watching destination, famed for its massive sea caves, which can be explored by kayak.
[Photo credit: Flickr user mikebaird]
The Channel Islands were first inhabited by the Chumash Indians, whose archaeological remains date back over 10,000 years. In the last two hundred years, the islands have variously been used by fur traders, fishermen, and the military (poor San Miguel was a bomb testing site that still has the odd live mine unearthed by the relentless wind). In the late 19th century, cattle, horse, and sheep ranching became island industries.
Today, the islands are essentially deserted except for some research facilities, and a handful of primitive campgrounds. There are no stores so campers must pack in all essentials, including drinking water. Campground reservations and a nominal fee are required on all five islands; Santa Rosa permits seasonal beach camping for experienced paddlers and boaters. Even if you’re just day hiking, be sure to bring layers, as the weather is unpredictable.
The Channel Islands are known as North America’s Galapagos. They’re home to over 2,000 species of bird, plant, animal, and marine life, 145 of which are found nowhere else on earth (including the island fox, and an endemic scrub jay). The waters host a variety of sea urchin species, including Strongylocentrotus franciscanus, the red sea urchin. Another confession: I’m not so much a fan of uni, which I find overpowering, as I am of sustainable marine resource management. I’m also fascinated by seeing any ingredient in its raw state. Combined with my love of sea kayaking, a Channel Islands uni expedition was irresistible.
Highly prized for their flavorful roe (which are actually the egg-producing gonads), red urchins are harvested commercially by divers for the domestic and international market. Purple urchins also proliferate in the Channel Islands, but their smaller size makes them undesirable for commercial use. Appearance-wise, uni resemble jaundiced cat tongues (really), and they have an intense, briny flavor revered by seafood aficionados for its pure, unadulterated ocean essence.
Uni is the Japanese word for sea urchin roe; sushi is the culinary form most familiar to Americans. Another classic way to enjoy uni is smeared on toasted bread, which is how I’ve eaten it on the Chilean island of Chiloe – another spot famed for sea urchin. In Southern Italy, uni, or ricci di mare, is sold as a street food, to be scooped onto bread, or tossed in pasta or risotto, while the French use them in custards or delicate sauces, as well as raw for street food. Uni used to be primarily an export product, sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, but since the 1990’s, the domestic market has been the most profitable. In Santa Barbara, you’ll find local uni, when available, at Arigato, and The Hungry Cat (convieniently, my two favorite local restaurants).
Uni is generally considered a sustainable industry because there are size regulations, permit restrictions, and limits on how many days a week harvest is permitted, depending upon the season. Red urchins range from tideline to depths up to 90 feet, subsisting entirely on bottom-growing kelp; the quality of their roe is entirely dependent upon the quantity and health of the aquatic plants, and it’s in the best interest of divers harvesting uni to be selective. Channel Islands uni are prized because of the high quality of the kelp, which is rich in nutrients due to the convergence of the region’s warm and cold waters. Grade A uni possess fatty, or creamy, bright yellow roe, while Grade B uni are more of a brown or orange color. The lowest grade roe have a grainy texture and brown roe.
Central California‘s coast is the nation’s leading source of uni, and it’s become one of the state’s most important fisheries. Though regulated (and currently only open to commercial harvest), not all sea urchin fisheries are sustainable. Human factors, in addition to climate and water temperatures (which affect the kelp cycle) are reasons you might not always find uni at your local sushi bar. Sea otter migration is another factor, and a source of much industry controversy.
While the Santa Barbara/Channel Islands fishery doesn’t have otters, the animals have, in the last decade, moved farther south-the result of coastal development and pollution, and increasing human populations. They’re a protected species, and a key part of the food chain. By nature, they’re grazers (they also don’t feed at depths below 60 feet), snacking upon sea urchins and crustaceans as they swim. Bits of food fall to the ocean floor as they eat, which in turn provides sustenance for lower-food chain bottom feeders. In some fisheries, otters, combined with overfishing, have caused sea urchin and shellfish populations to dwindle.The Channel Island fishery has instituted strict harvest regulations to sustain a healthy sea urchin population, but if otters move into the area, that could change.
The big picture, however, is that consumers, wholesalers, and restaurateurs need to continue to seek out seafood that is sourced in an ecologically responsible manner, from well-managed fisheries. How you eat your uni is up to you, but if you’d like to see them in their pristine natural state first, take a paddle around one of the Channel Islands.
For boat departures, click here.
The Santa Barbara Fish Market, located at the Harbor, sells live and processed uni. It’s adjacent to the Saturday morning Fish Market at the Harbor, held 7am to 11am. Local guys sell their catch straight off their boats; even if you just go to look, it’s a great little slice of local industry that not many tourists get a chance to see.
Spaghetti with Clams and Uni
The following recipe is from an uni article written by Los Angeles Times editor Russ Parsons. For information on how to purchase seafood from well-managed fisheries, click here to view Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” list.
2 T. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
dash crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 lb. spaghetti
1 c. white wine
2 lbs. small clams in shell (Manila type)
2 (2-ounce) trays sea urchins
Italian parsley, leaves only, left whole
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and garlic in a large skillet over medium heat. Taste a bit of sea urchin. If it seems bitter, add a pinch of red pepper flakes to the skillet. Cook until the garlic is soft but not yet golden, 2 to 3 minutes. When the garlic has softened, add the white wine to the skillet and raise the heat to high. Cook until the wine has reduced by about half, 4 to 5 minutes.
Add the clams and 1 ½ trays of sea urchins, reserving the best ones for garnish. Cover and cook, stirring frequently, until the clams are all open, about 5 minutes.
While the sauce is cooking, add the spaghetti to the boiling water. Cook until it is just short of al dente, soft but with a thin thread of crunch in the center, about 7 minutes.
When the clams have opened, remove the skillet from the heat and stir to break up as much of the sea urchins as possible. They should blend into the sauce.
When the spaghetti is done, drain it, reserving one-half cup of the cooking water. Add the spaghetti and the reserved cooking water to the sauce and place it over high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce has slightly reduced, about 2 minutes. Taste and add salt if necessary. Divide among 6 heated pasta bowls and garnish with the reserved sea urchin and several leaves of parsley. Serve immediately.