Marine Biologist Susumu Kato Is Urchin Us to Eat Exotic Seafood

UPDATED 05/27/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/27/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

Every few months a sturdy fishing trawler heads out from the California coast and takes government marine biologist Susumu Kato along for the ride—and he picks out the damnedest things to eat. Surrounded by mounds of perfectly edible English sole or halibut, Kato, 52, heads straight for the "trash fish": the odd ones, the ugly ones, the slimy, bug-eyed, crazy-shaped catches that would normally be tossed overboard. Some specimens Kato saves to bring home to cook, but others he cleans, slices, sprinkles with soy sauce and pops into his mouth right there.

Like Kato, America is developing a taste for exotic seafood. Traditionally we don't eat as much from the sea as many countries (nearly 14 pounds per person per year versus about 50 in Japan). And when we do, it is your basic two-syllable fish—your salmon, your swordfish, your tuna. But now pushed by health consciousness (fish are low-fat but high-protein), coastal piscine consumption is jumping 10 to 12 percent a year, according to Santa Barbara processor Michael Wagner. And curiously, the gain is not entirely from the tried-and-true species (sorry, Charlie). Instead in chic restaurants on both coasts—and even in a few inland—strange creatures like spiny dogfish, angel sharks and sea cucumbers are appearing on menus. Some, such as sea urchins (whose roe is called "uni"), have spawned an industry all their own.

All this would have been impossible without the ingeniousness of people like Kato, who is paid by the National Marine Fisheries Service to find other uses for underutilized fish species, thus taking the ecological pressure off much-fished conventional varieties. After each of his exploratory cruises, the Hawaii-born scientist sits down with fish wholesalers and retailers from America and abroad and matches up the trash fish of today with the consumer of tomorrow. He is respected: "I don't think that there's a guy who knows more about what's being caught than Sus Kato," says San Francisco food critic and restaurateur Patricia Unterman. And successful: Kato is known among Bay area fisherfolk as "the Father of the Sea Urchin Industry."

Kato first became a placer of lost soles in the 1960s, when he was a marine biologist in charge of a government project to reduce the shark population off California. After netting the sharks, local fishermen had been tossing them live back into the sea. Kato persuaded the fishermen to save the sharks and sell them to a Hong Kong firm that made shark-fin soup. "The fishermen made enough on each trip to buy TV sets," Kato remembers. "My Hong Kong contacts got the fins. Everybody was happy."

Eight years later Kato worked out a similar scheme for sea urchins. Until the 1970s American fishermen regarded the spiny, black, softball-size creatures as pests and killed them whenever possible. Enter Kato, who knew that urchin roe, golden in color and slightly nutty in taste, was prized in other countries like Chile, the West Indies, France and Japan. If the urchins were saved, he suggested, there would be a market for them overseas, and perhaps even at home.

Under Kato's direction, a group of divers began to farm urchins, using short-handled rakes to dislodge them from kelp tangles and rocks, carrying them ashore in 50-pound mesh bags and then cracking them open and scooping out their five spoke like rows of eggs. In their first year the haul was disappointing: The team collected only about 75,000 pounds of sea urchins, for which the divers earned less than $4,500.

But that was before the sushi craze. Today hundreds of restaurants are serving uni sushi. The York Timesrecemtly announced that uni was "in" while standard sushi was "out." Says Kato, "I have the satisfaction of knowing we started something pretty good." Last year in California waters, divers collected 15 million pounds of sea urchins, netting more than $3.5 million.

Since then Kato has championed an astonishing array of strange and ugly specimens, including the snail-like whelk, the spiny dogfish (a type of shark) and the hideous-looking sea cucumber. They are all species, says Kato, "whose time has come." Each has a page in a small catalogue Kato shares with potential buyers and wholesalers, who in turn look for a quick way to hook the public on a new taste. Kato remembers that several entrepreneurs sold a lot of shark when Jaws was released—"the revenge factor," he suggests dryly. Often acceptance of a new fish may be as simple as changing a name. Rockfish has been successful in California since it was rechristened "Pacific red snapper."

Kato often cooks up the fruits of his boating expeditions for members of his laboratory (a favorite is urchin roe with lemon, coriander and white wine), and at home near Tiburon, Calif., he eats seafood three times a week with his Japanese-born wife, Mitsuyo, 36, and their son, Aili, 16. These days he is also working on a fish project that has nothing to do with gourmet fare: It seems that while tiny rosy crustaceans called pelagic red crabs may not be a culinary delight, Kato thinks they may yield a cost-competitive dye.

And then there are kri11, the tiny, one-inch shrimp that make up one of the lower steps in the marine food chain but so far are being used only as aquarium food. Krill may not be tomorrow's uni sushi, but Kato is convinced that one day the American public will come to know them better. "There's got to be a place for them, "he says, with a visionary's confidence. "No fish is bad fish to me."

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