On a map, the penobscot Bay in Downeast Maine looks like shattered glass. Rivers and inlets crack through the rocky coast, carving out hundreds of islands and peninsulas. A favorite of fishermen and vacationers, the Penobscot is the halfway point on the coast between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia. One of the peninsulas is Castine, a hamlet popular with amateur sailors and revolutionary war buffs, and the home of the Maine Maritime Academy. During overcast mornings, Castine is like a cool slice of Scandinavia, with quaint clapboard homes, and with boats moored in the harbor. There’s even a small population of Swedish and Norwegian families who own vacation homes here. A bell buoy echoes into the piney hills across the harbor and the air hangs with a slightly salty mist. Down by the docks, the mist develops into a briny funk, for the Penobscot Bay is a thriving marine biome. Barnacles, algae, and kelp cake nearly everything under the waterline, and clams, mussels, lobster, and starfish are promiscuous breeders.
During summers here as a child I would often make my father take me down to the wharf at low tide. By the dinghies, my father reached his hand down into the murky water between a dock and the iron paneling of the wharf to try and find a specimen for me to poke and inspect. One day, with bated breath I watched him pluck from the iron my favorite echinoderm: a green sea urchin.
About three inches across, the roughly spherical urchin fit into my cupped hands. I held the specimen carefully— the spines didn’t puncture my skin. I looked closely at the olive-colored spines and the grayish-purple skeletal case underneath. From afar, a sea urchin seems about as lively as a rock. Observed closely, its spines are actually constantly in motion. Tiny moveable plates within the sea urchin’s shell attach to the spines, which allow it to flip itself, to absorb shock when falling, and to pose a defense against predators. Each spine is like a sturdy little building—hollow, with bricks of crystal calcite.
The underside of the sea urchin tickled my hand. I turned it over to see about a hundred small tube feet waving about, searching in vain for a foothold. During the daytime sea urchins use these thin, sucker-like feet to lodge themselves in holes, crevices, and the cold shadows underneath a dock. Photoreceptor cells are found all over the urchin’s shell and tube feet—some scientists propose that the entire sea urchin functions like an eye. When the sea urchin senses nighttime darkness, it comes forth from its hiding spot to embark on long journeys of nighttime foraging. A sea urchin will eat nearly everything—even a cookie if there’s nothing else available. They prefer algae, however, as I discovered that day. When I returned the sea urchin to my father, he nearly dropped it. From its underside, the animal had discharged a gelatinous substance. A glob of what looked like lime Jell-O landed splat onto the dock, oozing into the cracked old wood. I let out the shriek of a six-year-old.
“I think it emptied out its stomach,” my dad speculated calmly. And this was true: the sea urchin had released its most recent meal, ejecting a bright green, mucous-coated ball of half-digested algae. The sea urchin, perhaps stressed by the sunlight or uncomfortable after being outside its home too long, had given us its version of the middle finger. My father turned the sea urchin over to look at the orifice whence the algae came. The sea urchin’s mouthpiece is called Aristotle’s Lantern—a complex system of forty skeletal elements and muscles that control the movement of five self-sharpening razor-like teeth that scrape food inside. The puckered mouth lined with jagged teeth looked like the mouth of a tiny alien out of a science fiction novel.
Judging that the urchin had spent enough time out of its home, my father lowered it into the water, where it sank down out of sight to the seafloor. I wondered about when he might find another sea urchin for me to look at again. With every passing year there seem to be fewer and fewer by the docks, and they are further and further out of reach. For a long time, I seemed to find them on my dinner plate more often than living and in my hands.
I didn’t think about Castine the first time I ate a sea urchin. I was ten years old with my family at a small sushi restaurant. I didn’t realize I had ordered it- it came with a sashimi set as an unfamiliar, cold, jiggling, neoprene-orange puddle seeping into a roll of sticky rice. This was uni, or sea urchin gonads. Strike the sea urchin’s mouth with a sharp metal tool and the shell cracks open, revealing the glistening, carrot-colored gonads that cling to the interior walls of the skeleton. These orange genitals in front of me smelled horrendous. I held my breath and nibbled a slimy tendril from my chopsticks. I gagged—it was as though I had made out with a long-dead fish. I took another few bites, just to make sure I wasn’t wrong the first time, and passed it along to my older brother, who gobbled the urchin with enthusiasm.
I tried uni again a couple times. I insisted that I ought to enjoy a fashionable and exotic food like everyone else at these restaurants, but I was stumped. I tried fooling myself into enjoying it, but I could not get past the rich and pungent flavor
I had nearly given up before one experience at a small Japanese bar. Once again, I didn’t intend to order it. It came as a part of a set menu. This time the uni came unadorned, sitting lukewarm on a saucer. But this time instead of oozing, the gonads were more solid. I placed one in my mouth expecting the worst. It had the initial texture of very fine, creamy couscous. The eggs dissolved onto my tongue and developed a rich, butter-like consistency with a novel sweetness. The taste of the ocean was heady but not overpowering like before, and reminiscent of that briny funk of the docks in Castine. It’s not unlikely that the roe I ate before had been little bit old, or had been harvested right after spawning when it is bitter and unpalatable. I took another bite. I had fallen hard for uni. At least, I thought so.
I later tried uni swirled in pasta and uni layered toast, to mixed results. I usually finished most of the dish, pretending to enjoy it. My parents had paid for it, after all. Most recently I ordered it at a restaurant, sitting in a warm pile atop gently scrambled eggs. Like the first time I tried uni, my mouth convulsed at the taste. Why do I keep doing this to myself? I thought. It was a waste of money to keep bothering. I wondered how many foodies like me were out there, lying to themselves and each other about what they liked to eat, and suffering through eating things they didn’t like.
I imagine there are quite a lot of people like me, and probably a lot of people who really do like sea urchin, because today, the Penobscot Bay has been almost emptied of them. At one point, sushi lovers realized that the roe from the green sea urchin of my childhood could be sold as high-grade sashimi. The uni of green sea urchins from Maine is supposedly just as delicious as the roe of their expensive cousins from Hokkaido, Japan.
Naturally prolific breeders, sea urchins were nearly everywhere in Castine fifty years ago. They earned the nickname “whore’s eggs,” stealing bait out of lobster traps and leaving spines in the feet of swimmers. Fishermen usually smashed sea urchins with hammers and burned the remains. During spring spawning season, the abundant sea urchin population released millions upon millions of eggs, leaving a thin orange slick on the surface of still water. The cells mingled and fertilized one another, creating larvae that drifted in the sea for a month before arriving wherever the currents and tides took them.
In my life, I’ve never seen an orange slick on the sea anywhere in Maine. This is because in the mid nineteen-eighties, Maine fishermen stopped smashing the sea urchins and instead sold them to Japanese fish merchants. By 1990, ninety-five percent of sea urchins harvested in Maine were shipped to Japan. Four years later, when after more farmers had entered the market and the sea urchin boom was at its greatest height, there were 2,725 licenses for fishing sea urchins, and fishermen took 40 million pounds of sea urchins from the Gulf of Maine. Japan’s appetite for uni was insatiable, but the harvest was not sustainable. The sea urchin population diminished steadily and quickly. By 2009, the number of licenses had dwindled to 434, and only 2.7 million pounds were harvested. Even the village of Castine, sheltered deep in the Penobscot Bay, was not too out of the way for those still scouring the Maine Coast for tasty sea urchins. One summer the green sea urchins were simply not there anymore. No one in my family has seen one down by the docks since. Sometimes I wonder if my trial and error of eating them has contributed to the decline of a species and the damage of an ecosystem close to my heart. Trying a bit too hard to be a foodie was more than just a waste of money: it was contributing to the decline of a species.
The Maine Coast is not completely barren of sea urchins: fishermen still harvest every year. The season is now shortened, and heavy harvesting has moved to other countries in the Pacific, notably China. Many believe that with careful fishing practices the population in the Penobscot will come back, but that could just be wishful thinking. I may or may not try sea urchin again. I’m undecided.