As an environmental disaster unfolds on the ocean floor, where purple sea urchins continue to devastate kelp beds, Mendocino County chef Matthew Kammerer is doing his part to help eradicate them -- by demonstrating purple urchins can be delicious.
As executive chef at the Harbor House Inn in the tiny coastal town of Elk, Kammerer forages daily for ingredients to serve in his two Michelin-starred restaurant. On a nearby beach that supplies local rock cod and seaweed, regularly Kammerer combs for purple urchins, which a low tide reveals in the purple thousands clinging to rocks.
"We’ll go down, basket, buckets and just walk out into the tide pools and start to harvest," Kammerer said, toting a stylish farmer's market basket.
The purple urchin disaster has unfolded like dominoes, with climate change thumping the first tile; a period of uncharacteristically warm ocean waters gave rise to a wasting disease among starfish -- the main predator of purple urchin. With nature out of whack, purple urchins spawned unchecked, devastating underwater kelp beds which support abalone, also leading to their demise.
"All this is supposed to be out there," Kammerer said, scanning the thousands of urchins spread out like a spiny purple blanket. "But since there’s no kelp out there anymore they’ve moved in."
The scientific community has sounded the alarm and suggested various strategies of dealing with the ever-expanding population from having divers routinely remove the urchins, to developing a commercial market for purple urchins. With his 25-seat restaurant, Kammerer is doing what he can to make a dent, though he admits a single chef is a bit outmatched.
"There’s just an astounding number," Kammerer said. "Even if everybody ate purple sea urchin every day there’d probably still be an abundance."
And yet on a recent typical gray Mendocino morning, Kammerer delicately made his way across treacherous slippery rocks to collect urchins. Some he cracked open with a special tool to check the amount of gonad, or mango-colored uni, inside.
"It’s not like a fish where you can see the size of it," he said peering into a broken shell which was nearly empty. "You have to crack a shell and you don’t know if there’s anything in there or not."
Through his experience purple urchin foraging, Kammerer has discovered the amount of uni inside the shells may differ based on their location. Urchins in some zones have ample amounts of the highly prized uni -- which tastes like briny custard. But some shells may be hollow - a sign the urchin are stressed and starving.
Researchers at the Bodega Bay laboratory in Bodega Bay have been experimenting with a process of feeding food pellets to purple urchin in an effort to fatten up the uni. The hope is that by making them a desirable delicacy, they can establish a commercial market in which divers would be motivated to haul in purple urchins by the thousands, giving the kelp a chance to rebound.
"In essence we develop a recipe that the commercial industry could take as a starting point," said Karl Menard, the lab's aquatic resource manager, "and actually develop a viable industry."
Menard noted that in some spots along the Sonoma Coast, kelp beds have fully recovered - adding optimism to the strategy of thinning the purple urchin populations.
But Kammerer's effort on this day is more a revelation about the challenges of creating that commercial market, and why efforts to fatten up the purple urchins will be necessity if they're going to ever become a highly desirable food product.
After whisking his urchin catch back to his kitchen, Kammerer cracked-open the day's catch to pair with a savory egg custard dish featuring purple urchin along with red urchin, which are harvested in nearby Fort Bragg. The red urchin are fat, firm and favorable -- holding their shape as the chef spooned them onto a ceramic plate and garnished them with tiny flowers.
But within minutes of extracting the purple uni from their shells, it had melted into an ochre-colored mess.
"We can’t sell this," Kammerer said somewhat dejectedly. "This is five-minutes and it’s completely gone."
The sight of thousands upon thousands of urchins laying on the beach, and one chef's paltry take seemed to illustrate the finger in the dyke sort of nightmare those concerned with the coast's imbalanced eco-system face.
In the last two years, Kammerer has witnessed the number of purple urchin multiply ten-fold. He said photos can't adequately tell the story, you have to walk down to the beach and stare-out at their purple abundance for it to sink in. The reality is that it may take a myriad of tactics and methods to set nature back in balance.
Despite the failure of his day's purple urchin haul, Kammerer plans to keep returning to the beach to try and make use of the pervasive invaders -- one chef doing his small part - one basket at a time.