Project Report:
San Diego Watermen's Association Fishery Study and Dockside Meeting. (C/O Sand County Foundation as fiduciary)
Harvesting Urchins 639 x 434
Commercial diver harvesting urchins. Sea urchins graze on kelp and are part of a complex ecosystem. (Photos by Barrett Walker on Foundation site visit.)

- Investigates the causes of economic imbalances.
- Explores and develops market-based solutions.


Like most fisheries nationwide, the California Sea Urchin Fishery is regulated in a way that discourages fishermen from cooperating to conserve stocks or improve the quality of their product. The grant partners, including the Walker Foundation, funded a study conducted by fishermen of the San Diego Watermen’s Association to collect population data needed for improved management. The grant also funded meetings to report results of the study, and to solicit input from fishermen and experts on ways to improve the fishery. As a result, the San Diego Watermen’s Association is proposing a pilot program to show that both economic and conservation benefits will result by changing management from open access to ecosystem management based on area specific harvest rights.

Drained trays of urchin "uni" stacked for grading at processing plant, Catalina Offshore Products
Drained trays of urchin "uni" stacked for grading at processing plant, Catalina Offshore Products


During the 1960’s sea urchins were considered a threat to valuable kelp beds. In the early 1970’s fishery agencies encouraged urchin fishing in Southern California. By 1987, industry and state were both concerned about the rapid growth in landings and diver numbers and created a California Department of Fish and Game Director’s Sea Urchin Advisory Committee. The Committee was funded by a self-imposed landings tax to be used for activities supporting fishery monitoring, management, and enhancement. During its first five years, the Committee worked with the Department of Fish and Game to set minimum size limits, seasons, and restrict the number of divers with permits, primarily through attrition. There has been little change in management regulations since then. As the Committee’s influence and momentum waned, it was disbanded in 2001. In general during the 1990’s densities declined to one half to one quarter of their previous level. (From Sea Urchin Fisheries: A California Perspective by C. M. Dewees, University of California)

At the same time that California harvests declined, prices for processed urchin, or uni, dropped. During this period approximately 90% of California uni was exported to Japan. Two conditions converged to cause a drop in prices. The Japanese economy entered a decline at the same time that stocks around the world were exploited. The drop in harvests combined with a decline in prices led urchin fishermen to re-examine how the fishery was managed.

The industry’s strong interest in collaborative management, research, and monitoring lead to the founding of the San Diego Watermen’s Association in 2005. The California Department of Fish and Game was under severe funding constraints that prevented it from gathering detailed data on stocks. However, a number of fishermen and fishery experts believed that the scale of management units in the California Sea Urchin Fishery should be set on the order of a few miles from the ports. This would allow for some form of cooperative management centered on each port.

The foundation-funded study enabled working divers of the SDWA to gather scientifically sound data on the sea urchin population. Sea urchins inhabit kelp beds that are located in state-managed waters inside the three mile limit. The Barefoot Ecologist Program used for the study was developed as a collaborative effort by the SDWA with fishery scientists Ray Hilborn, Jeremy Prince and Steve Schroeter.

Under current regulations there is no incentive to conserve or expend effort to improve stocks. For example, if a fisherman decides to leave urchins in an area to allow them to grow and reproduce, and then decides to harvest them at a later date when they have a higher value, there is nothing to legally prevent another permitted fisherman from harvesting the same area. The result is a loss for any fisherman who attempts to conserve stocks and a gain for any fisherman who harvests the catch first. Regulations in federally managed waters off-shore are similar to state regulations. Fishermen term this race to harvest a derby.

In order for fishery participants to collect ongoing data and develop effective harvest strategies at the local scale, governance must be changed to provide the right incentives.

The SDWA held a dockside meeting with San Diego sea urchin divers, lobster fishermen and others to discuss their visions for improving the conservation, productivity and profitability of the San Diego near-shore fisheries.

Fishermen pointed out that management plans need to be flexible because ocean conditions vary greatly from year to year due to natural variation and human impacts. Area-based management could allow fishermen to switch between species when changing conditions require that fishing effort for a particular species be reduced to allow for recovery. This approach addresses the need for ecosystem, as opposed to single species, management. Reserves have also been recognized as being important as underwater wilderness and as scientific reference areas. Many fishermen were concerned that unless preserve design and plans for ecosystem management includes fishery data, they will lead to economic ruin.

We propose a pilot program to show that both economic and conservation benefits can be maximized by the allocation of area specific harvest in the San Diego sea urchin fishery.

Partner Organizations & Participants: Stephen C. Schroeter, Research Ecologist, Marine Science Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, California; Carolyn Culver, Sea Grant Extension Advisor for Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, Santa Barbara, California; Christopher Dewees, Marine Fisheries Specialist, Sea Grant Extension Program, Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, University of California Davis; Ray Hilborn, Professor, School of Aquatic and Fisheries Science University of Washington, Seattle, Washington; Jose M. Orensanz, Professor of Fisheries Science, Centro Nacional Patagonico, Puerto Madryn, Argentina; Ana Parma, Professor of Fisheries Science, Centro Nacional Patagonico, Puerto Madryn, Argentina; Jeremy Prince, Marine Ecologist Biospherics P/L, South Fremantle, WA, Australia Foundations; Sand County Foundation - The Bradley Fund for the Environment; The Nature Conservancy; Commonweal

Update: A follow-up grant from the Ocean Protection Council and the California Coastal Conservancy resulted in a 2008 study attached to this report.


There exists an economic imbalance in the way California near-shore fisheries are managed. The top down management system does not allow for data collection or management at the scale of each port. It is based on a precautionary management system with the intended purpose of allowing fishing without depleting stocks. However, the current single species management approach is inflexible, discourages innovation, and provides no incentive for conservation. We propose to change this to a knowledge-based management system that gives fishermen the exclusive right to harvest a particular area. This approach will reward fishermen who are good stewards of the marine environment. It will encourage flexibility and innovation.

There also exists an imbalance between the producer and the processor with the producer having the role of a field hand. We propose to seek improved market paths and to change the producer from someone who delivers a commodity to a producer of high-value seafood. For example, by keeping their catch alive and selling a high-quality product, both fishermen and consumers will benefit. Conservation and stewardship will benefit from long-term business changes that add value to the harvest and “pull” the management reforms with market demand.

We believe that it will eventually be necessary to establish cooperative, ecosystem management in order to achieve the following: 1. conserve the resource and 2. provide diversification in order to produce adequate income for the fishing community during periods when environmental conditions result in lower than average harvests for certain species. By cooperating in science-based monitoring, fishermen will have an incentive to be stewards of the marine environment.

It will also be desirable to redesign working harbors as the centers of fishing activity and commerce. Profits from healthy fisheries can be used to upgrade infrastructure and facilities for the supply, offloading, transporting and marketing of live and fresh seafood. Marketing would be expanded to include direct sales to processors, wholesalers, retailers and the public. San Diego fisherman Peter Halmay observed that in Southern Chile, where urchin fishermen have secure harvest rights, the fishing fleet is well managed and has become a tourist attraction.


This pilot project has the potential to serve as a model for the other fisheries in San Diego and eventually for near-shore fisheries in California and throughout the United States. The original project had two goals: to conduct a population study and to use the results for obtaining State permission to establish a pilot project for management of the San Diego sea urchin fishery. The population study has been successfully completed, but educating fellow divers and obtaining State permission has turned out to be a more daunting process than the partners expected.

The most important and difficult part of the project is to educate fellow divers, both in San Diego and Statewide, that a new, innovative system of management that allows for flexibility, but places additional obligations on recording data, is needed. An important success of the dockside meeting was to educate and involve more fishermen in data collection.

The California Ocean Protection Council was established by law in 2004 to help coordinate and improve California's ocean and coastal resources. It will identify and recommend changes is State and Federal law. With over $20 million in funds for activities that include fostering sustainable fisheries, the Council is currently considering a grant to build on the existing project by designing a demonstration fishery and obtaining the required State permission.

Information Dissemination

Representatives of the supporting foundations, fishery experts, and staff from the State Coastal Conservancy visited San Diego to observe the San Diego sea urchin fishing operation first hand. This included observing divers harvesting the sea urchins, transporting them to port, offloading from the boats to trucks for delivery to the processing plant, where they are processed for shipment to sushi bars. The Foundation representatives discussed the progress that has been made in the funded study with SDWA members, and discussed the problems encountered.

A highlight of the visit was a Dockside meeting and BBQ where information on the results of our project were disseminated to the San Diego fishing community at a large meeting. An open forum was held so that sea urchin divers, lobster fishermen and others could discuss their visions for improving the conservation, productivity, and profitability of the San Diego near shore fisheries.

Amounts Approved
$19,500.00 on 11/30/2005 (Check sent: 12/12/2005)
$1,150.00 on 7/28/2006 (Check sent: 8/2/2006)

  Related Organizations
San Diego Watermen's Association  

Red Urchin
Red sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus franciscanus. Fishermen propose using study data to design an area-based management regime that will reward conservation of stocks.

Diver in kelp-forest ecosystem
Diver in kelp-forest ecosystem

Urchin fisherman, Peter Halmay, entering population data into computer aboard his boat
Urchin fisherman, Peter Halmay, entering population data into computer aboard his boat

San Diego Watermen & their families confer with supporters & researchers at dockside meeting.
San Diego Watermen & their families confer with supporters & researchers at dockside meeting.

Sushi restaurant in San Diego serving "Uni", or urchin roe
Sushi restaurant in San Diego serving "Uni", or urchin roe

© 2024 Alex C. Walker Foundation