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Longtime Sea Urchin Diving Partners Lead the Way in Sea Kelp Restoration, Technology and Collaboration

By Leanne Weiss

Terry Herzik (67), Gary Thompson (71), and Lucy, Gary’s 8-year-old Chihuahua, board the Sunstar at dawn with enough food and fuel for the next three days. As they pull away, in their 34-foot vessel the sun is just beginning to rise over Fish Harbor, in San Pedro, Los Angeles. They’ll head southwest 9.5 knots for approximately 4-and-a-half hours before they arrive at San Clemente Island. They are going commercial fishing, but they won’t be using nets, traps, hooks, or even fishing lines. Instead, they’ll be donning wet suits and diving to the ocean floor where they will harvest red sea urchin (Mesocentrotus franciscanus). They’ll scope out the area and carefully measure each urchin to ensure it meets California Department Fish and Wildlife size regulations before placing it in their bag and moving on to the next.

 

Long time partners and veteran commercial fishermen Terry Herzik and Gary Thompson secure the health of sea kelp and urchin habitats through collaboration, science, and technology.

 

They began diving together 15 years ago, Terry explains, “The nature of the business is…that you are enclosed in a little cabin about the size of a shoebox so you’ve got to figure out how to be compatible pretty quick. So, Gary and I did – and it’s been a good peaceful marriage, you might say.”

Terry and Gary both decided to pursue careers as sea urchin harvesters after studying and working in the fields of engineering and aerospace science. As young men, both were attracted by the idea of working in the water, as their own boss, and harvesting from the sea.  Terry calls it “the cowboy lifestyle” and recalls that it was very attractive as a young man.  As they have gotten older, both feel fortunate to be making a living doing what they love. “We’ve both raised families from the bounty of the ocean” Terry says.

 

The red sea urchin is commercially harvested in Southern California. Inside the spiny exterior, the golden roe (commonly referred to as by the Japanese term uni) is a delicious treat for any adventurous eater or sushi lover.
The red sea urchin is commercially harvested in Southern California. Inside the spiny exterior, the golden roe (commonly referred to as by the Japanese term uni) is a delicious treat for any adventurous eater or sushi lover.

 

Now, with over 40 years of experience each, Terry and Gary are thinking about the future of the urchin fishery. They’ve found a way to combine their science background with their fishing and diving expertise by working with marine researchers and planners. Gary explains, “Presently…we’re working with The Bay Foundation on a kelp restoration project.” The Bay Foundation is currently working to restore kelp habitat off the coast of Palos Verdes, near Los Angeles.  Here, and elsewhere in California, purple sea urchins are so prolific, they are choking out contributive kelp habitat. In the place of a healthy kelp ecosystem an “urchin barren” (an area void of other natural sea life) has been created. Because there is so little food, the urchins are small, unhealthy, and not harvestable by fishermen. A few days a week Terry and Gary dive down to these barrens off of Palos Verdes and thin specific sections designated by the scientists at The Bay Foundation. According to Gary, it’s a perfect match, “I can’t think of anything better. For both Terry and I, it’s a wonderful fit because we have a science background.” And the best part, Gary adds, “We’re motivated to see the kelp come back, and all the fish that come with it. We’ve already witnessed that! It’s an incredible transformation.”

Terry and Gary have also volunteered their time with other organizations, such as Point 97, a for-purpose company working to improve marine and coastal management practices with technology solutions and engagement strategies. Terry and Gary are testing Point 97’s new mobile app, Digital Deck, an electronic logbook for tracking and submitting real time catch reports directly to state managers. The app will also allow fishermen to track important information, such as where and when they’ve made their largest catches and what ocean conditions were like on that day. “It’s the wave of the future; everything else in our lives is going digital,” says Terry.

The app is poised to make both fishermen and managers’ lives easier, something Terry and Gary are excited about. Terry explains, “I think that … this will simplify our lives – we have to keep records anyway, and pushing a button to send it to fishery managers will be like one stop shopping.” Gary adds, “[California Department of] Fish and Wildlife needs to do this. Sometimes the [paper] data we submit gets so backlogged, and it’s of no use to anybody. You can’t transcribe it all. It’s got to be done.”

Point 97’s Digital Deck application is providing real-time, accurate and collaborative marine mapping and data management to fishermen and resource managers.
Point 97’s Digital Deck application is providing real-time, accurate and collaborative marine mapping and data management to fishermen and resource managers.

 

Both Terry and Gary see their unique partnerships between science, technology and the fishing industry as an opportunity to contribute back to the fishery that has meant so much to them over the years. “At this stage of the career it’s nice to be able to give back and still earn a decent living.” Terry comments. And they feel it’s important for fishermen to work together with those trying to manage the ocean. With the number of hours these men have logged underwater, they possess the knowledge, perspective, and experience to help managers and scientists better understand and regulate fisheries. Gary concludes, “We’re out there [on the water] a lot; this modeling with computers, and never going diving just doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to get out there and see what’s going.”

 

The Sunstar returning to dock after restoring kelp ecosystems and harvesting sea urchin.
The Sunstar returning to dock after restoring kelp ecosystems and harvesting sea urchin.

 

For more information on The Bay Foundation visit: www.santamonicabay.org

For more information on Point 97 visit: www.pointnineseven.com

For more information on the California Urchin fishery visit: www.calurchin.org

 

Author Leanne Weiss is a former associate at Point 97 and Ecotrust, where she worked with fishing communities to gather socio-economic data to inform policy measures. She is currently pursuing a masters degree at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.