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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sea Urchins: Maine's Delicate Delicacy

Air Date: Week of

Andrea DeLeon of Maine Public Radio reports on the recent boom in sea urchin roe exports which now seems to be facing an equally rapid decline. The Maine fleet was quick to answer Japanese demand for the delicacy, but now some fishermen wish officials had acted sooner to limit takes and sustain the population.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you think about seafood from Maine, lobster can't be very far from your mind. And indeed, with its big, fat claws and succulent meat, lobster is still the most important commercial catch from Down East Maine. But in recent years, the lobster's been getting a run for its money from a new creature on the marine auction block, the sea urchin. Now in the US we tend to think of sea urchins as curiosities to be avoided. Their bodies are small balls that bristle with sharp spikes, and if you step on one at the beach you won't soon forget it. But they are highly prized in Japan for their eggs. In fact, this year, Maine officials predict sales of sea urchins to Japan will top $50 million. But the big money may not last. Even though the urchin fishery is just getting started, it already appears to be in danger of collapse; and as Maine Public Radio's Andrea DeLeon reports, many harvesters are blaming the state.

DELEON: If you told a Maine lobsterman a decade ago that the lowly sea urchin would become Maine's second most valuable seafood product, you would have been laughed off the waterfront.

(A man speaks: "It is the bane of lobstermen, it has been the bane of lobstermen. It would fill their traps, eat the bait. In fact, even gnaw through the twine on the traps. And so in the beginning of this it was terrific: get rid of these urchins. And
then when it became...")

DELEON: Paul Blaise is the owner of Rowboat Enterprises in Booth Bay Harbor, a business that exports live sea urchins to Japan. On most winter days, his warehouse floor is stacked with trays of greenish-brown creatures that resemble nothing more than viciously-studded pin cushions. They may not look like much from the outside, but processed urchin roe sells for up to $50 a pound in Japanese markets. Blaise uses a special tool to crack a sampling of urchins and check the roe content. It is the end of the season; many urchins have begun to spawn, which makes the roe unmarketable. And this year, high quality urchins have been scarce all winter.

(Cracking sound)

BLAISE: This portends bad. I mean I, uh, OK, so you can see a difference there. That is a little off-color, it's a little towards the brown; what you're looking for is orangey or bright yellow.

DELEON: Blaise cracks half a dozen urchins before he finds one with roe sacks just the right orange-yellow color to please the discriminating Japanese palate and aesthetic. The results of this sample don't please him, but the rest of the load is packed into boxes with refrigerant. They'll be at a Boston airport tomorrow and delivered to a processor in Hokaido the day after.

(Voices calling to each other while loading)

DELEON: The Robbie and Daniel cruises into the rowboat wharf, her deck piled high with urchins. Captain Bobby Hallonen tends lobster traps in the warm weather and takes out an urchin crew in the winter. Over six years of harvesting urchins, Hallonen says a lot has changed.

HALLONEN: In our area there's, there's pretty much, it's been hit hard, really. And a matter of fact, today, we went, we took quite a ride, and the outer islands have pretty much been hit hard. And it's not like it used to be.

DELEON: But urchin harvesting is still an outstanding living by local standards. A good diver can make $200 to $500 a day, though rough winter weather often keeps boats in shore. The Robbie and Daniel is a sleek lobster boat only 2 years old. It's one of a lot of new boats in the water at Booth Bay Harbor, since the urchin money started flowing. That reputation for easy money may be why nearly 2,000 divers have taken to urchining, and why Hallonen and others now bring about a third of the urchins they once did on an average day. After several years of inaction, the state instituted a series of regulations. These include closing
the fishery during peak spawning, and requiring harvesters to have a license. But divers say the state isn't enforcing a moratorium on new licenses, and some people estimate that 25% of all the urchins harvested in Maine are taken illegally. Jim Boland of the Maine Urchin Harvesters' Association, says fishermen have always had trouble preserving the resources that support them.

BOLAND: Traditionally in the fisheries, the predominant attitude is that if I don't go out and get it, somebody else is going to. Somewhere along the line, somebody's going to have to put the hammer down and say this is it, this is all you're going to get, make the most of it.

DELEON: Though there is far from universal agreement on what additional measures, if any, should be taken to protect the urchin fishery, harvesters who are already licensed seem to agree that additional regulations could be needed. In addition to enforcing the moratorium on new licenses, many harvesters would like to see the state close areas of the coast where the marketable urchins have been cleaned out. Urchin refuges would be allowed to lie fallow. The idea intrigues Maine's new commissioner of marine resources. Robin Alden says no one knew anything about Maine's sea urchins when the fishery took off. But, she says, regulations must sometimes precede scientific studies of a resource. Alden believes Maine's sea urchin fishery can be brought to a maintenance level where landings are lower, but supply is steady. She says marine officials need to take a
lesson from the urchin experience and be ready to regulate the next new fishery as soon as it emerges. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea DeLeon.



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