Ravenous, brainless and covered with spikes, sea urchins have evolved to not be messed with. Off of the south coast of Oregon, one kind of urchin in particular, the purple sea urchin, is enjoying an unprecedented population boom--up 10,000% percent in recent years. In the waters off of Port Orford alone, there are now thought to be more purple sea urchin than there are humans in the US (350 million vs. 330 million).
While urchin has traditionally been on the menu in Japan and in domestic sushi bars, where it's known as uni, Oregon chefs are finding new ways to serve this newly abundant resource. Fresh uni is often described as tasting of the sea--briny, yet rich and fatty. It's a combo that Erizo's Jacob Harth finds works well on toast, coated in a light soy-egg sauce, served impossibly fresh at his pop up at the Nevør Shellfish Farm in Tillamook. Further south in Port Orford, The Nest Cafe's Christian Gomez is developing an uni carbonara, featuring fresh whole uni, uni sauce and uni foam, a nod to traditional Mediterranean urchin preparations, but with an Oregon coast flare.
But the rise of the purple sea urchin is alarming to coastal researchers like Oregon State's Tom Calvanese. Purple sea urchin eat kelp, and left unchecked, can devour underwater kelp forests, which are essential habitats for fish and other marine species. Before western contact, sea otters and sunflower sea stars kept purple urchin numbers down. But these natural predators are now scarce, leaving humans with the job of protecting kelp forests. According to Calvanese, eating more urchin is definitely helpful, but is only part of a larger coordinated effort to protect and manage the coastal ecosystem.
This is the second episode of OPB's new video series on food and food systems in the Pacific Northwest, Superabundant. Check out our previous episode on Oregon truffles.