Santa Barbara Sea Urchins, Prized By High-End Restaurants, Are Being Sold To Home Cooks

The briny, creamy gonads inside a red sea urchin harvested from Santa Barbara. (Courtesy of Brenda Ton)

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Some of the best sea urchin in the world comes from Santa Barbara, but with high-end restaurants shut down, the fishermen who harvest and rely on them for income have had to find new markets for the delicacy — and do it overnight.

"I have two holy crap moments," said Stephanie Mutz, who's been diving for urchin for the past 13 years.

One was when the Chinese market — the largest buyer of live spiny lobster — shut down in February and Mutz and her friends had to figure out how to offload hundreds of pounds of the crustaceans locally.

And the other was when restaurants across the U.S. closed and she was left with over 1,000 live sea urchin typically destined for high-end seafood establishments.

"Life turned upside down," she said.

She spent weeks driving from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles to Orange County, trying to offload her catch.

She specializes in selling live urchins, which have a shelf life of a few days once they're pulled from the water. Wholesale processors up and down the coast are also usually an option. They crack the urchins open, cover them in preservatives, and ship the briny yellow gonads around the world in those wooden boxes you see piled up behind the frosty glass at sushi bars.

With no wholesale market, the processors were shut down too.

Over time she was able to get rid of the batch she'd harvested, but with 80% of her market gone she had no choice other than to turn primarily into a direct-to-consumer operation.


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DIRECT TO CONSUMER

At first she coordinated all of the sales via text message, but there was so much demand she shifted to an online store.

"People are still wanting it," she said. "I think it has to do with they want some sort of normalcy."

"I'm used to pleasing 50 chefs a week. Now I'm trying to please 300 people," she said.

It's questionable whether most people can filet and cook a whole fish. Cracking open and scooping out the insides of a live urchin can be even more intimidating, and something Mutz got a lot of questions about.

So she created a video to show people how to do it.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Stephanie Mutz/#HarryLiquornik (@seastephaniefish) on

She's had enough interest from home cooks to make up the money lost in restaurant sales, which means she can keep her few employees working, she said. Other fishermen in Santa Barbara haven't been as successful, and she's skeptical about long-term stability.

"A lot of people are still buying with their heart," said Mutz. "It'll be interesting to see if that support continues."

HOW YOU CAN SUPPORT LOCAL FISHERMEN

She isn't the only one who's explored alternative methods of distribution.

  • Get Hooked is a community supported fishery where people can sign up to receive recurring orders of fresh local seafood.
  • Garrett Rose is a fisherman who sells salmon, crab and rockfish. He set up an e-mail list that people can subscribe to and buy directly from him. Those interested can e-mail OceanRoseFisheries@gmail.com.
  • Stace Cheverez, another sea urchin diver, is selling everything from halibut to sea urchin to rock crab and oysters, directly to consumers. He and his daughter are working to get their store up and running.
  • For those interested in purchasing seafood in person, there's a Saturday morning market in Santa Barbara Harbor where people can buy seafood fresh off boats.