To eat or not to eat? That question was part of a discussion that ensued after the discovery of a live sea urchin up-Island. Albert Fischer, finder of fantastic things, photographer, and all-around interesting guy, shared a picture of a large Atlantic purple sea urchin.

The ooh and ahh factor of sea urchins is undeniable. They are quite beautiful in a startling way, completely covered with long, sharp spines attached to a bony-plated body, called a test. To understand the structure of a test, think of an orange with all of its sections, but the urchin’s is harder and fused together to provide strength and protection for the animal’s soft insides.

To watch sea urchins move is fascinating. By pulsing water through their tubed feet (which protrude from their test), movement is achieved by walking on these feet, their spines, or even their mouth.

Two varieties of urchins live in our waters. The green urchin is found offshore in deeper areas, while the purple urchin is more likely seen near shore on and among rocky substrates and in tide pools.

Finding them is a treat, as it isn’t an everyday occurrence. Bert shared that he has “run across them since childhood” and “occasionally finds their skeletons on the beaches.”

And many say eating them is also a treat. Their roe is a delicacy, fancied in Asia and now popular in Boston restaurants and across the country as chefs and foodies look for the next big flavor.

And therein lies the rub. With urchin’s newfound culinary popularity and the decline of more traditional fisheries, commercial harvesting of sea urchins has increased dramatically and subsequently affected the population of these marine creatures.

Fisheries in Nova Scotia and Maine have seen dramatic declines in harvests and depletion of the marine resource. In Maine, when the commercial industry blossomed, it was referred to as the ‘green gold rush’ since the preferred species to harvest is the green sea urchin. A commercial fisherman recently shared that fisherman can be their own worst enemy, but it is hard to blame people fighting for their livelihoods.

Massachusetts state regulations provide for commercial harvesting by scuba diving from May 1 through August 31 and for mobile gear from March 1 through Oct. 31. An active commercial sea urchin fishery exists on the North Shore of Massachusetts. There doesn’t seem to be anyone commercially fishing urchins here on the Island yet.

Lobsterman Jason Gale of West Tisbury told me that he is seeing more urchins in his lobsterpots over the last few years, but the urchins are small. As far as recreational shellfishing goes, Jason — who is also on the West Tisbury Shellfish Advisory Committee — believes that individuals with a shellfish permit could harvest urchins that are at least two inches (the state size requirement) without the spines.

The question of whether one should eat them remains. According to Seafood Watch, a sustainable seafood guide, it is best to eat green urchins hand-harvested from Canada and avoid Maine-caught. Knowing Bert and his gentle soul, he most likely returned the urchin to the sea to live another day.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.