Gov. Jerry Brown says he can save taxpayers millions by downsizing government.
Just don’t expect to get the state budget balanced on the back of the California Commercial Sea Urchin Advisory Committee, one of 43 boards, commissions and other entities targeted for elimination in the governor’s revised budget yesterday.
The sea urchin committee hasn’t met in a long time, people familiar with the entity say.
Its work – overseeing the state’s nascent sea urchin fishery – has been taken over by the state Sea Urchin Commission, which itself has been spared the governor’s axe.
And that makes total sense, said David Goldenberg, the commission’s executive director, given that “we’re not costing the state anything,” as he put it in a phone interview.
Licenses and fees – not taxpayers – fund the industry’s regulation, he said.
“We pay the Department of Food and Agriculture to provide oversight on us,” he said. “Every last single dime and penny – it’s all recouped.”
The example of the sea urchin committee shows it can be difficult to find budget savings in a state where user fees often underwrite the cost of industry regulation.
In his budget message, Brown said he would reap $82.7 million in savings by dismantling selected boards and commissions.
“In some cases, entities have outlived their usefulness,” he wrote. “In others, the mission and function remain important, but there is a better, less costly way to attain the same goal.”
Among better-known entities marked for dismantling: the state Mining and Geology Board; the Postsecondary Education Commission; the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board; the California Council on Criminal Justice; the state Anti-Terrorism Information Center; and the Commission on the Status of Women. A call to Brown’s press office went unreturned.
Republicans were dismissive, saying Brown was tinkering at the margins rather than taking on the big-ticket, politically difficult issues like “massive unfunded pension liabilities,” as California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said in a statement.
“If cutting 43 commissions makes sense, what about the other 260?” he also asked.
That raises the question of how California got in the business of regulating the sea urchin fishery to begin with. In a 2009 lawsuit, then-commission director Vern Goehring described the history.
Sea urchins – spiny shellfish – live on rocky reefs and graze on kelp. Japanese chefs prize the roe, or eggs, of sea urchins – “uni,” they call it – for sushi.
California divers began harvesting sea urchins for export to Japan in the 1970s. They were encouraged by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which feared that a population explosion among the urchins might destroy the coast's beds of giant kelp.
California sea urchins were a hit in Japan. But over the years, sushi became so popular with Americans that today more than half of the California harvest is consumed in the U.S. In recent years, the catch has averaged about 10 million pounds per year, with a wholesale value of about $19 million.
“The production of sea urchin for domestic consumption and export is one of the leading segments of the state’s commercial fishing industry,” says the state law that created the urchin commission. Among its jobs is to help “balance sea urchin production and protection of the natural marine resources of California,” the law says.
Without regulation, the sea urchin population would be fished out in a hurry, the state says. Today, the sea urchin industry is worried about sea otters. Otters eat urchins, and divers say that federal efforts now underway to reintroduce the otters to the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara might cause an unintended collapse of the fishery.