Nature documentary ‘The Delicacy’ dives into humankind’s obsession with sea urchin uni
By Dev Jaiswal and Christina Campodonico
Have you ever gone to a sushi restaurant and wondered what is “uni”? Via Instagram shots, Snapchat stories, TV shows or otherwise, you may have heard of this strange epicurean delight.
More commonly (and somewhat misleadingly) marketed as edible sea urchin eggs, uni is the Japanese word for a sea urchin’s reproductive organs. It’s a common dish in East Asia. The sea urchins are cracked open, their custard-y, delicate, yellow-orange gonads are taken out and then served in sushi or increasingly on some sort of whimsical platter. This “uni” has a briny umami taste.
Civilizations as ancient as Rome have indulged in these gourmet gonads, but despite modern technologies, fishing for sea urchins remains far from easy or automated. Jason Wise, founder of the online streaming service SOMM TV, documents the lives of hardworking Santa Barbara sea urchin hunters in his new film “The Delicacy,” which premiered in May. Wise was also honored during a virtual gala hosted by the Westchester-based Bay Foundation on Sept. 1.
“I happen to love eating sea urchins, but I have a background in biology, and I started my career as an underwater photographer,” Wise told The Argonaut at the end of May. “I thought ‘Nobody had ever made a film that showed this type of fishing, which is putting on a wetsuit, going underwater in a very dangerous place and collecting a food item.’”
Several factors make sea urchin fishing dangerous, foremost the fact that the creatures are covered in spines. Touching or stepping on a sea urchin is painful, but ultimately harmless, except in some species that are capable of injecting venom. The job is also entirely physical, and the Santa Barbara seas teem with great white sharks.
“There’s not many professions where you go to work, and you pack a lunch, and you could encounter a great white shark at noon,” said Wise.
As Wise documents in the film, many of today’s sea urchin divers got their start in the industry through surfing and fishing for abalone, a type of sea snail, which made dishes like ab burgers a staple of California coastal summers. Abalone reproduce very slowly, and after a rush on the species after World War II, a scarcity resulted, forcing abalone fishers to pivot their jobs to harvesting sea urchin. The film follows a group of these fisherpeople, mainly seasoned watermen who got their start young (one of whom still has a collection of abalone shells sitting around his house), and one woman, Stephanie Mutz, a marine biologist turned commercial fisherwoman who’s also the only female sea urchin diver in the area.
Wise explained how he chose this group of individuals to showcase in the film.
“It was a very tight-knit but competitive community,” Wise said. “Anytime you have people who know and love each other but also compete obsessively with each other, you have interesting story potential.”
Wise got his start underwater while working for a PBS travel show. He’s been to many islands, including the Galapagos and Fiji. Despite his experience, however, Wise remains assertive that nature has its own mind. While making this documentary, he once got stuck underwater inside a kelp tangle while attempting to resurface.
“I walked into this film relatively cocky, that I was really experienced, that I had dove with lots of sharks and done all these things,” Wise said. “I had a pretty scary scuba diving accident in this movie … Many things went wrong… All of the kelp, hundreds and hundreds of pounds of it, came back and surrounded me, and I got tangled a couple hundred feet from the boat. It ripped my regulator out of my mouth, and I was being pulled underwater. It was really bad.”
Despite a near-death experience trying to capture the essence of uni on film, Wise described the seafood delicacy as having “kaleidoscopes” of flavor. In the documentary, the divers all use different phrases and emotions to describe the taste, but brininess seems to be a commonality. (“Like kissing a mermaid,” is how one food critic in the film describes it.)
“I truly believe from a biological standpoint this is the strangest thing Western society eats,” Wise said. “When you look at the people I’ve found, who are truly obsessed with sea urchin, they are truly obsessed. You’re not half in; you’re all in.”
Kelp forests, like the one that ensnared Wise, are important parts of the ocean ecosystem and culture of uni consumption because sea urchins primarily eat kelp. For there to be an adequate population of sea urchins for humans to fish, there needs to be an adequate kelp forest too, explains Tom Ford, Chief Executive Officer of The Bay Foundation, who adds his expertise as an interviewee to the film. (Since 2013, The Bay Foundation has restored a little over 50 acres of kelp forest off the coast of Palos Verdes.) But too many urchins can be a problem as well.
“Kelp forests are naturally very… dynamic,” says Ford. “They’re big boom and bust systems. … And the urchins are very well adapted to this very flashy system. So when the times are good, the urchins go crazy. They eat till they burst and they reproduce like mad. … When times are tough, they have this fantastic ability to kind of hunker down and get by for decades if necessary on nearly nothing. So that’s the story of the red sea urchin. … The purple sea urchins that live off our coast are not as patient. When times get bad, they don’t just hunker down and say, ‘Okay, we’re just going to wait this out.’ They start marauding around the reef, and they will eat everything; they will mow it all down.
“For the kelp forest, if there’s these overly numerous urchins that have cleared out the kelp forest, it does not readily want to switch back to a kelp forest,” Ford continues. “And that is a bunch of the work that we do at The Bay Foundation with our partners, which is clearing out those excess urchins actually, you know, taking them off the reef, smashing them with hammers, leaving a few of them behind everywhere we go, and then letting the kelp forest come back to life.”
In other words, there needs to be a balance. (And don’t feel too bad about the smashed urchin; they’re not going to waste. According to Ford, “they don’t have large well-colored, well-toned gonads that would be of interest, not just to human beings for uni, but for even any of the existing predators in the area because they’re essentially empty eggshells on the ocean floor.”)
“It’s just an unbelievably spectacular place,” says Ford of the kelp forests. “If you get underneath there and you’re diving or snorkeling through it, you get to see what I consider to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. The shafts of light come cutting down through the kelp canopy at the surface, and it looks like you’re in a grand cathedral. And there can be thousands of fish swimming around, a variety of algaes, red, green, brown, gold, growing off the bottom.”
As for the sea urchin hunters, “they’re fairly neutral” in the grand ecological scheme of things, says Ford, but do operate like a keystone predator species, restoring balance to the kelp forests.
“For us, the fisherman [are] not functioning as fisherman but doing the restoration work for us. And in that case, they’ve been absolutely positive,” says Ford, adding that The Bay Foundation hopes to begin kelp forest restoration work off the coast of San Miguel Island, a sea urchin harvesting spot that features prominently in the film. “At this point, we’re just trying to galvanize the political will and to find the financial support we need to go out there and conserve and preserve these places, not just so that the kelp forest survives, but so that these small businesses and these communities of people and these cultural traditions can continue.”
Although his main intention was to entertain through this film, Wise has a message behind his depiction of man’s eccentric obsession with these strange and tasty deep-sea, spike-guarded gonads.
“I wanted to show that humans assign a lot of odd values to things,” Wise said. “I still think about this film as a nature documentary about people. The reason sea urchin was the catalyst for the film is [that] I wanted to show how strange humans are as animals. Look at what we do. Honest to God, look at this! Why the hell do we do this?”
Wise’s next film will focus on humans’ diverse meat-eating practices of whole animals.
Watch “The Delicacy” at sommtv.com.