Sea urchins appear to be the lowliest of marine creatures—the painfully prickly echinoderms sit at the bottom of the ocean, feeding on algae far beneath the sea’s majestic swimmers. But there’s one set of landlubbers that can’t get enough of the briny deep’s ugliest residents: Sushi eaters.
Green sea urchin populations have plummeted in North America, thanks in large part to rising demands for uni, a sweet, creamy dish made from sea urchin gonads. As food writer Barry Estabrook recently noted, uni’s popularity on sushi bars prompted nearly 3,000 commercial fishermen to take to Maine’s seas in the mid-1990s in search of the delicacy. Diners couldn’t get enough, business boomed, and Maine’s fishermen hauled in nearly 40 million pounds of sea urchin worth about $33 million in 1994 alone.
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