Hillary Eaton

Originally appeared on Vice

Diving for Salty Gold in California

Eating a freshly-caught urchin’s uni (its testes) right out the shell is one of the finest gustatory pleasures I’ve ever had. I owe this indulgence to Stephanie Mutz, California’s only female uni diver and former marine biologist who supplies fresh urchin to some of LA’s top restaurants like a drug dealer. Santa Barbara sea urchin’s silky roe has earned the name “California gold,” and I understand why. These prized urchins are handpicked by divers off the Santa Barbara coast and sold to California restaurants and distributors, some getting shipped as far as Japan.

I met up Stephanie at her boat on the Santa Barbara pier after a long day of harvesting, where we discussed the challenges of both uni diving and the fishing community at large as we cracked open some of her freshly caught urchins and sucked the uni straight out of the shell. That shit was so good, I didn’t care that she was telling us it was the urchins’ testes.

Photo by Kevin Wise
Photo by Jason Wise

MUNCHIES: How did you first get into diving and commercial fishing?
Stephanie Mutz: I went to grad school in Australia and started deck handing on boats so I could finish my publications and look for a job. I got into fishery politics and realized that I had a better angle on it if I came to meetings and said I was a fisherman, instead of saying I worked for one. The more meetings I went to, the more I hated them. The more fishing I did, the more I loved it. Now I fish a lot more, go to a lot less meetings, and I’m a lot saner.

You mentioned that you stay fishing because you feel it’s an honest way to live.
I have a purpose, a purpose of supplying a protein source to a community. It’s gratifying.

When you go out on dives, how do you find a place that you think will be urchin-rich?
I look at the weather and go from there. Growing up diving on the coast means I’m familiar with the bottom of the ocean and the reefs. I go on exploratory dives to check out spots and mark them and sometimes talk to other fishermen and see if they have suggestions, but that’s not reliable as they might end up sending me to the opposite spot. As a last resource, I look for rocky reefs and variable topography, because the bottom has lots of bumps and valleys with kelp on the bottom.  

How do you dive down to get the urchins?
I do a type of diving called hookah, with a surface-supplied air source. I have a compressor on my boat run by a five-horse power Honda engine attached to a hose, so essentially my ‘tank’ is on the boat. Theoretically, I have unlimited air supply—until the fuel runs out. If I’m diving hard, it’d take me two or three days to empty that thing.

Photo by Jason Wise

That sounds intense! How much uni can you get on a good day?
Two hundred pounds is average, but every day is different. I think that’s why my ADD-self likes it so much—you’re always on your toes. I use my brain much more now than when I was in grad school, because you have to think ahead and prepare. Especially for me, being relatively new to the industry. I’m graduating out of newbie status. The average age of the urchin diver is about 66-years-old and they’ve been diving for 30 or 40 years.

Crazy. Are there a lot of younger people starting to dive now?
They’re starting to. I think it also has a lot to do with the economy—it tanking was one reason I started full time fishing. I got laid off, freaked out, then said, “Alright, I’m a full time fisherman, here we go.”

Stephanie at work. Photo by Jason Wise

Do you need a permit to dive for urchins?
Urchin diving in California is what we call “limited entry,” which means that you need an urchin permit to dive and fish. It’s not like I have the permit and can just be on the boat while someone else does it—I have to harvest the urchin. It’s non-transferable. I can’t sell my permit— it doesn’t belong to me and I pay for the ability to use it. There are 300 permits available in the state, and if one year only 295 people renewed their permit, then five permits are available and people who have been a deck hand for at least three years or more have their name gets put in a lottery, then five people get picked. I don’t know anybody who didn’t take it.

Is the fishing environment competitive right now?
Well, only about 130 permits are actually being used because there are a bunch of old guys who keep them “in case.” Like, they work construction but keep their permits in case they lose their job. I think 130-150 divers is good, not only for the resource but also the economics behind it, because there’s probably about ten percent of those 130-ish divers that are getting the bulk of the weight. The fishing game goes on weight, not value, so my urchins are worth more because of my marketing and distribution. With good weather the market fills up quite quickly, and you’re competing for space, especially since they put up the marine protected areas—not a terrible thing, but they didn’t take into consideration that they were taking the same amount of fishermen and putting them all into a small space. So we’ve got less space to fish with the same amount of competition. Urchins are fast growing and pretty plentiful, though.

Photo by Jason Wise

Is the urchin population OK right now?
I think they’re fine. It’s pretty impossible to overfish them because we’re logistically limited. One frustration we often have with management is that they aren’t concerned about the economics of our fisheries. They don’t address concerns we may have like limiting the number of fishermen. But what if all 300 permits are being utilized by 20-year-olds and there are people who need to support their families?

Do you typically sell all your urchin when you have it?
Lately it’s been crazy—I’m selling out really quickly. I’d rather bring less and sell out than waste any because they’re princesses and don’t last long out of water.

Has there been increased demand for urchin over the past few years?
I think so. Sushi restaurants have become more predominant in the US, so that’s a reason. Also—and this is not a derogatory remark—more white people are eating urchin. They are getting more adventurous.

Urchins in storage box- Hillary Eaton
Stephanie on the dock. Photo by Hillary Eaton.

You’re in a very male-dominated profession. Does it affect your work?
No matter your sex, you will have a hard time succeeding if you don’t have support from your constituents. Fishermen are salty—myself included—but we’re not crusty and mean. I guess people look at me as more approachable, being a woman. I do fish differently than men. The guy I was fishing with yesterday was a lot more aggressive and caught more than me, but I’m a lot more patient.

How many other female urchin divers are there?
In California it’s just me, but I’m not the first ever. There’s some pretty amazing women that seceded me.

Uni- Hillary Eaton
Photo by Hillary Eaton

You mentioned to me before that people often don’t want to deal with whole urchin, so a lot of the urchins you sell to other companies have to go to a processing plant first. What’s up with that?
When the urchins are loaded onto a truck after fishing, they go to a processing plant either in LA or San Diego and are cracked, opened, and cleaned and sorted by color and size. They’re also put in a preservative (an aluminium or sodium nitrate) that firms it up and brightens the color. In my opinion, it does alter the taste—I prefer it fresh out of the shell.

Yea, I can tell there’s a huge difference. Thanks for talking to me.