Fishing for Uni Off Maine's Bold Coast
by r.s. cook
Some 300 miles north of Boston, the Machias Motor Inn has never been so busy. It’s December of 2012, and the parking lot is lined with pickup trucks, trailers, and boats, while their owners check and recheck their gear. They’re gathered at this rural outpost in Downeast Maine in pursuit of a highly profitable, highly dangerous, highly curious catch: sea urchins. The Japanese delicacy urchin roe, commonly known as uni, has become the new caviar for many foodies, appearing on the menus of Boston’s top sashimi eateries, such as O Ya, Oishii, and, of course, the dish’s Back Bay namesake, Uni Sashimi Bar. Although these restaurants and others see only a tiny fraction compared to the bounty sent overseas to Tokyo, if you’re eating uni in Boston, it most likely came from Maine’s Bold Coast. And while the urchin itself offers little more than a bite, the story behind that bite is a mouthful.
“Quite honestly, I could make $10,000 to $12,000 easy tomorrow,” urchin diver Joe Leask tells me in one of the motel rooms off Route 1. “That is, if the market is good, and if the urchins are as thick as they say they are, and if I’m on my A game.” Leask runs a nubby finger across a chart of nearby Cobscook Bay, on the edge of the Canadian border. Two arms of Cobscook—Whiting and Denny’s Bays—have been closed to urchin fishing for three years now, and they open tomorrow. Opportunities like this don’t happen often, and urchin fishermen from Portland to Lubec are here to get in on the action. “From first light, you’re going to see boats launching nonstop—it’s going to be a race,” Leask says. “I’ve done this racket long enough, I know where the urchins are going to be the best. I’m going to go right there and get in the water and stay in straight through till dark.” He looks up from the chart.
“This kind of diving hasn’t happened here in years and years.”
Unlike lobsters, scallops, haddock, and the other seafood that have come to define Maine’s commercial waterfront, sea urchins were not fished on a large scale in these parts until the late 1980s. Before then, most fishermen regarded these spiny marine invertebrates as nothing more than a nuisance caught in lobster traps. Today they can fetch up to $7 a pound during the holiday season (although the price drops considerably the rest of the year), paid in cold hard cash right at the docks by buyers from Japan, Cambodia, and other parts of the world. “It wasn’t until the Japanese tanked their own fishery that they started serially going around the world and fishing down other urchin fisheries,” says Trisha DeGraaf of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources. “We’ve been able to hold on to ours, but we haven’t had any real signs of recovery.” Since the buyers began arriving, Maine’s urchin catch has plummeted from 41 million pounds in 1993 to 2.4 million in 2011. In 2009, Whiting and Denny’s Bays were closed entirely in an effort to combat this overfishing. Now, after three years of vigilant regulation and monitoring, they have been reopened, leaving DeGraaf and her department holding their breath.
First light arrives at 5:30 am, and the boat ramp at Cobscook Bay State Park is a zoo. One after another, trucks back down the gravel and launch their boats into Whiting Bay. “Been here 20 years,” says a fisherman after parking his truck. “Never seen it so busy.” The surrounding terrain is raw and foreboding. Conifers rise high from the water’s rocky edge, and seaweed covers everything. It’s a land of bald eagles, ospreys, seals, the occasional black bear, and more than 200 species of bird and other wildlife. The bay’s most distinctive feature, however, is its tide. Cobscook, meaning “boiling waters” in the native Maliseet-Passamaquoddy language, joins the Bay of Fundy in one of the highest tidal ranges in the world. Approximately every six hours, 100 billion tonnes of seawater rise and fall in the Bay of Fundy, while further inland at Cobscook this tide is expressed in a powerful current that, the night before the dive, ripped a 40-foot boat from its mooring and ran it onto the rocks some miles away. More pointedly, Cobscook’s “boiling waters” make urchin fishing a deadly endeavor that has claimed the lives of several in recent years.
After a 10-minute motor from the dock, Leask puts his 40-foot center console, Amber Mist, in neutral and gets ready to fish. He pulls a scuba diving dry suit over two pairs of sweatpants, a T-shirt, and two fleece jackets. The waterproof outfit is a patchwork of black and red neoprene, bound with baseball-like stitches and a zipper that could best be described as industrial. “I made this suit myself,” he says proudly, stepping into a pair of thick booties. “Certainly one of my more crafty moments.” Leask squirts liquid soap on his hands as a lubricant, then yanks on a pair of three-finger neoprene gloves. Florescent yellow flippers go on his booted feet and a 50-pound weight belt around his waist. He then heaves on an oxygen tank, plugs one of its tubes into a valve on his suit, and turns the nozzle. “This keeps me from sinking straight to the bottom,” he says of the air now filling his suit. Finally, he slips on a neoprene hood and a dive mask and bites down on his scuba mouthpiece. With little more than a nod, Leask drops off the starboard side of the boat. The water is around 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the tide is just beginning to run.
Urchin divers typically work in teams of two: A diver harvests the urchins, while a helper mans the boat and sorts the catch. Fifty-seven-year-old Clint Richardson is assisting Leask today. Richardson’s job is monotonous and backbreaking: Haul up the bag full of urchins, toss down an empty net, sort the catch, and be sure not to run over Leask with the boat. After dragging a bag on board, Richardson dumps 50 pounds of urchins on the sorting table and begins checking for size. A legal urchin can be no smaller than two inches and no larger than three (sans spines). With a measuring tool, Richardson sizes each one, placing the legals in plastic containers and tossing the illegals overboard. “You want to try one?” he asks.
This is a green urchin, the only urchin fished for in the Gulf of Maine. It’s known in some circles by its ironically long scientific designation, Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis. A close cousin of starfish and sea cucumbers, the green urchin is an echinoderm, which generally means a five-pointed, radially symmetrical marine invertebrate. Its spines are much less sharp than they appear, more pencil tips than thumbtacks, and they reach out, almost inquisitively, to my prodding fingers. Flipping it over, I find the urchin’s mouth, known as “Aristotle’s lantern,” through which it consumes kelp and other algae along with tiny invertebrates such as young mussels. “Here, crack it open with this,” Richardson says, handing me a rusty garden hoe. I strike the urchin’s soft spot and reveal the reason we are all here: Roe. Eggs. Liquid gold.
Brave or curious or downright starving must have been the first person to crack open one of these gnarly, spine-covered suckers and slurp down its gooey innards. The eggs are hazard orange and have the consistency of very fine couscous. As I tip the urchin over, the roe oozes out into my palm. Okay, down the hatch. It tastes savory, coating my palate in buttery richness. There isn’t much to chew on—just a gelatinous mouthful of umami. The finish is exceptionally briny, achieving a new level of fishy, even for day-boat sashimi. Think lobster-claw succulence, eel salt, and oyster mouthfeel, with just a touch of dry seaweed. Despite being fatally wounded, the urchin continues to quiver its spines—a sign of freshness if there ever was one.
Meanwhile, the only signs of Leask are the bubbles rising from his tank, the buoy connected to his net, and the occasional flash of his yellow flippers. The urchins live on reefs at depths ranging from four to 40 feet, depending on the tide, and Leask is handpicking them. Seams of current knit the water’s surface, echoes of the tide surging below. Just up current and around a rocky corner is Reversing Falls, a point where the land pinches together like a thumb over a garden hose and the tide rushes through furiously. Only the boldest divers dare tempt Reversing Falls. It’s an ominous stretch of water that has turned boats into splinters and dragged fishermen down to unmarked graves.
Not far from Reversing Falls, past a field and a park, there is a small graveyard marked by a fence of pylons. Two of the gravestones date back to the late 1800s, while the third is of new polished granite. Its epitaph reads: IN MEMORY OF MY SON JOSEPH FLOYD JONES 10/24/1980–10/20/2009 AND THE CREW OF THE BOTTOM BASHER. Twenty-eight-year-old Machias native and urchin fisherman Joseph Jones was one of five fishermen to drown in Cobscook Bay between March 2009, just before the fishery was closed, and December 2012. He and his crew of Daryl Cline and Norman Johnson were dragging nets (another fishing method) for urchins around Reversing Falls on the night of October 20 when their boat sank. Cline’s body was found the next day. Johnson’s was discovered two months later. The body of Joseph Jones, however, was never recovered, lost along with his 34-foot boat. (Two days after I left Cobscook, Jones’s wallet was found in a fishing net. His body remains missing.)
As a sliver of pink peels across the horizon and darkness descends, boats begin puttering back to the dock. To greet them are the buyers, a fleet of commercial trucks with their rear doors agape. Before the fishermen can strike their first cigarette on dry land, before the water drains from their boats, before the divers even have a chance to pull off their neoprene suits, the buyers are already aboard their vessels. They scramble around the boxes of urchins like gulls, cracking into them with specially designed tools to check their quality, specifically the color and thickness of their roe. Top-quality urchins contain bright orange or yellow roe that’s, ideally, 12 to 13 percent of the urchin’s total weight. These, I am told, are showing more like six percent. “That’s good egg,” one diver insists, “good egg for Cobscook.” The buyer scoffs. Let the haggling begin.
The dockside urchin auction is capitalism at its most crude. Supply meets demand, and the ever-contentious question of quality yields the price. The first price offered is $1.60 per pound. The fishermen are deflated. Just last month they were getting $5 down in Rockport. Veterans like Leask don’t even bother entertaining a deal. He has a longtime buyer lined up and will rarely sell for anything less than $3. “I’d rather dump these back in the drink than get under two bucks,” hisses one fisherman. Others aren’t so headstrong. They’re visibly exhausted and know that the only thing standing between them and a wad of cash followed by a warm bed is saying yes. The buyers know this too, and the price drops to $1.20 as the auction continues into the night. It’s hard to watch these deals transpire without feeling slightly bitter toward the buyers. That is, until you talk to one of them.
Sinuon Chau has been in the urchin processing business since 1999. His family owns and operates East Atlantic Seafood and has followed the urchins up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Like many of the fishermen gathered here at Cobscook, Chau and his fellow buyers are regularly turned into vagabonds by the hunt for urchins. And just as the fishermen are subject to his prices, Chau’s income rises and falls with the international urchin economy. Russia recently flooded the market, and the price in Tokyo is abominable— thus Chau’s $2 offering at today’s auction. “I don’t really know about the future,” he says, securing the last of the day’s purchase in his truck. “The way it is right now, if it continues like this, in three or four years it will be finished.” And with that, Chau grabs the lanyard to the truck’s sliding door and pulls it shut with a hollow bang.
Within the truck, within a plastic container, within its shell, the uni will stay fresh for up to five days with proper refrigeration. From here, the trucks drive south three hours to processing plants in Portland, where workers dressed in hairnets, plastic bibs, and thick rubber gloves carefully crack, scoop, clean, dry, and grade every urchin. After being cleaned and dried, the roe looks more like a fresh orange slice than the watery mucus that pooled in my palm just hours before. These slices are stacked neatly in rectangular pine containers, about four ounces each, then loaded back onto the trucks and driven to Logan Airport, where they catch the first flight to Japan. And so it is, from the churning waters of Cobscook Bay to the bustling Tsukiji Market of Tokyo, that Maine’s green urchin is fished, processed, and shipped in just over a week.
Not all of Maine’s sea urchins are bound for Japan, however. Some are shipped live, spines and all, to restaurants in Boston—like the urchin that sashimi chef Tony Messina now has in his hands. “These are really for adventurous diners,” Messina tells me as he carves it open. “It’s delicious in the same way that offal is delicious, like how some people love a sweetbread—it has that funkiness to it.” The chef stands behind the open-air sashimi bar of Ken Oringer’s Back Bay restaurant, Uni Sashimi Bar. Stacks of tuna, octopus, and eel from Japan, salmon from the Faroe Islands, anchovies from Spain, amberjack from Hawaii, and urchin from Maine and California surround him behind a display that catches the candlelight. “I personally prefer the Maine urchin because it has that seawater gaminess to it,” Messina says. “California urchins are creamier and a lot cleaner. I like the funk of a Maine urchin.” The purple urchin from Santa Barbara is the size of a grapefruit and looks Jurassic next to its Maine counterpart, almost like a medieval weapon. “Plus, the Maine urchin is a lot easier to open and fresher.”
After cutting a circle into the urchin, Messina frees up the roe with a teaspoon, then drops the orange eggs into a bowl of sake. He cleans the shell under a faucet, the urchin’s spines folding back neatly in the running water, then delicately returns the roe to the shell for presentation. He places the shell on the rim of a white plate, then divvies out sections of the California uni around it like satellites. Pomegranate tamari is drizzled over the plate, along with pickled huckleberries and pomegranate seeds, micro greens, a pinch of fleur de sel, and a dusting of bacon powder.
What was once a bizarre creature ripped from unforgiving waters is now a sophisticated dish that pairs well with warm sake and costs around $20. Chef Messina comes around the bar and places the plate before me. After briefly admiring the presentation, I gingerly pinch the Maine uni between chopsticks and raise it to my mouth. I can’t help but think how curious it is, the story of this bite. All the toil that went into harvesting it, all the hands it passed through, all the lives it touched—a dangerously procured nub of nourishment, transformed into a work of art.
photography by joshua simpson