Fishing With The Urchin King Pete Halmay.
On the job with Pete Halmay, 71
A mile or so off the coast of Point Loma, six-foot swells rock the Erin B. The old 35-foot boat pitches and yaws like a bull ride in a saloon while Peter Halmay sprinkles baby powder on his extremities. He tugs himself into a faded wetsuit that has suffered lacerations and been hand-sutured many times over the years. Another day at the office:
Halmay is preparing to dive 40 feet or more into dark, cold water and spend the next five hours on the bottom harvesting red sea urchins, a prickly softball-sized treasure considered by many to be the best-tasting of them all.
Within a matter of hours, diners here and around the globe will pay a premium to consume the day’s catch. Served iced and live on the half shell with a dash of lavender sea salt and lemon at South Park’s Sea Rocket Bistro, dropped into a luminous shooter at PB’s Sushi Ota, balanced on a scoop of green tea ice cream at Kaito Sushi in Encinitas, or eaten right out of the shell on the deck of a heaving fishing craft, the flavor of fresh urchin, also known as uni, is an unexpected, primordial salty sweetness.
“It’s like taking a bite of clean ocean,” says Slow Food San Diego president chef Gordon Smith. “Sexy, clean ocean.” When Smith owned the Basil Street Café, he folded fresh uni into his linguini.
First-time urchin eaters may require a suspension of disbelief. What foodies claim as roe is not. It is in fact gonad. A sea urchin is all gonad and no brain, a circumstance that possibly has contributed to the notion among Asian cultures of uni as an aphrodisiac. Science has been hot on the uni trail for decades. Sea urchins were sent on a Space Shuttle mission once to measure, of all things, the speed at which their sperm could swim in zero gravity. Years later, Texas researchers chose to sequence the sea urchin genome. Their conclusion was unsettling. Somewhere along the evolutionary chain, they claim, urchins and humans shared a common ancestor.
Halmay, 71, the recipient of triple bypass surgery three years ago, spits into his dive mask. He dives at least four days out of every week. “We don’t take breaks. We go out 52 weeks a year. Good weather or bad.” His first mate straps him into a buoyancy vest, then fastens an air tank onto the back and checks air flow through the regulator. Next comes a weight belt threaded with chunks of lead the size of apples.
“You have to have a high threshold of misery,” Halmay grins through the mask, “to be a good uni diver.”
Out here, floating above the kelp forests, the color of the ocean water has signaled the increase in depth by shifting from postcard cerulean to indigo. Without further notice, Halmay simply falls backward off the Erin B. and splashes into the sea. He will drop down a rope line into the murk where, in 12 feet or less of visibility, he will burn through three air tanks and pluck upwards of 400 pounds of urchin off the rocks with a hand tool he calls a rake.
Count the ways that urchin divers have died doing this very thing: air tanks foul, compressor hoses kink and snap. Boats sink, fishermen drown. Then there’s the bends, heart attack, shark attack. Halmay sees them frequently. “I told my kids that if I get eaten by a shark, it’s a good thing. How many people can say their father got eaten by a shark? He dies of a heart attack, who cares?”
It was 1970 when Peter Halmay heard there was good money to be made fishing for sea urchins. He quit his job as an engineer and bought a used lobster boat. Sushi bars were springing up everywhere and they couldn’t get enough of our rich uni. As a result, by 1985 nearly three quarters of California’s sea urchin population had been fished out. It was a gold rush of another sort, and red urchin populations were on the brink of collapse. That the Department of Fish and Game was killing them off as fast as possible was no help either.
Sea urchins then were considered pests. Herds of them were mowing down the seaweed forests vital to San Diego’s kelp industry; hence the state’s order to exterminate by any means. Today, urchins are thriving again along California’s coastline and the fisheries are healthy. David Goldenberg, executive director of the California Sea Urchin Commission, says that as a whole the California uni industry is in relatively good shape, and calculates the annual haul at around $21 million.
What saved our urchin fisheries? According to Halmay, it was a necessary dose of self-interest. He legally stopped the Fish and Game kills and proposed size limits for commercial harvests. He helped found a fishery governance and appealed to fellow divers to adhere to an honor system. In time, both the red and smaller purple urchin populations rebounded, and San Diego became a star in the crown of a process called co-management.
University of Washington researchers published a study in September’s Nature magazine analyzing more than 100 such co-managed fisheries. They found the success of a fishery often comes down to a single person. They mentioned Peter Halmay as an example of that success.
Then again, in San Diego there is less to monitor these days. Eighteen: this is the total number of divers currently harvesting Point Loma sea urchins. The average age of a local urchin diver here is 50. The fishery is otherwise closed. No new permits are being issued at this time. One could almost conclude that uni fishing in San Diego is a vanishing trade.
“We’re a fishing town,” says Halmay. “But without a new business model, our heritage is going to go away.” He wants to create an open-air fish market at Driscoll’s Wharf in Point Loma. He wants to feed people. He has it in his head that the consumer should know the fisherman, “from the boat to the throat.” The commercial pier as tourist attraction: “People love to hear fishing stories. There’s no fishing stories at a Safeway.”
But as much as he loves to fish, Halmay says his favorite time of day is the ride back home. “The boat’s loaded up with the day’s catch and at least for the time it takes you to get back to the dock, you’re rich. And you’re thinking about all the things you’re gonna do with that money. For a little while, everything is great, and you don’t have a worry in the world.”