An innovative fishing business in south-eastern Australia combines a commercial harvest with ecological rehabilitation.

Story by Mandy McKeesick

It isn’t for the landlubber. Squeezed into a narrow marine gutter, with a cunjevoi-encrusted shoreline reaching for her bow and a breaking wave threatening her stern, sea urchin boat Soul Surchin is plying her trade. As a stockman will sit astride a fractious mare, so deckhand Andrew Curtis rides the swell aboard this 6-metre fibreglass craft, one eye on the sea as it rolls towards him, another on the twin 115-horsepower (85 kilowatt) motors, and all the while watching the boil of bubbles that marks the diver below.
Andrew and diver Keith Browne are proprietors of South Coast Sea Urchins, an innovative business that takes roe from spiny urchins and delivers it to discerning palates across the country. Both men originally hail from New Zealand and have a long history in the Australian fishing industry, working in the abalone game before seeing an opportunity to market sea urchins. Their business on the south coast of New South Wales employs three teams of divers and 25 workers at the Pambula factory.
Today, the pair is working the coastline south of Eden and, with Keith halfway through his six-hour diving day, Andrew is flat out tending the boat and packing urchins. The sinuous yellow hose winding across the water, which supplies air to the diver, comes perilously close to entanglement in the propellers – “you’re not a deckie until you’ve cut the hose,” Andrew quips – but he flips it nonchalantly out of harm’s way before glaring at the spluttering air compressor that has just been swamped by a wave.
Underwater, Keith levers the sea urchins from their rocky substrate and places them into a net bag. Once the bag is full, he inflates a parachute and sends 30 kilograms of urchins rocketing to the surface for Andrew to collect. “From January to June we work here and in northern Victoria, harvesting the purple urchins,” Andrew says. “Warm water and summer light means they are feeding well and producing good roe, which has a strong, bitey taste – something like a vintage cheese. Then from July to November we move to Port Phillip in Melbourne to harvest the white urchins. They have a more subtle flavour and are favoured by restaurants. You could say they are the best quality urchins in Australia.”
The day’s catch totals 600kg and processing begins at the factory mere hours after Soul Surchin docks.

This story excerpt is from Issue #108

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2016