ELLSWORTH — With three months gone in the state’s split fishing season, Maine divers and draggers are enjoying high prices for the sea urchins they harvest, but only because of the woes of foreign fishermen.
According to preliminary information compiled by the Department of Marine Resources, the mean price for urchins harvested by divers and draggers in the eastern part of the state was $3.23 per pound, with draggers earning as much as $4.02 per pound and divers $3.54 this month. DMR landings specialist Lessie White disclosed those figures last Wednesday at a meeting of the Sea Urchin Zone Council.
The season has a long way to go though – it doesn’t end until early March – and the high prices aren’t likely to hold.
“The price is high because the quality is low elsewhere,” Chuon Muth, a council member and urchin processor in Scarborough, told the two dozen or so harvesters, scientists and other DMR representatives on hand for the meeting.
Urchins are harvested throughout the world for their roe – or reproductive organ – which is considered a delicacy by many. The primary market for the roe is Japan.
The Maine fishery, about 1.5 million pounds live weight last year, represents a miniscule proportion of the worldwide harvest. Japan and Russia have the largest fisheries. According to Muth, the quality of the urchins coming from those fisheries recently has been poor.
Buyers look for plump, firm, yellow to orange roe and are most interested in animals in which the roe averages 10 percent or more of the urchin’s body weight. Roe quality depends on a number of factors, including diet and the urchin’s spawning cycle.
At an urchin council meeting last year, Muth said that a processor averaged a 12 percent yield throughout the season was “a good buyer.” At last week’s meeting, he said that roe yields from the Japanese fishery currently averaged about 2 percent and from the Russian fishery just 3 percent. He attributed the problem, at least in part, to warm water temperatures globally.
“The quality is poor all over the world,” he said. “Ours is the best right now.”
The best, perhaps, but according to DMR biologist Robert Russell, not all that plentiful.
Information from the DMR’s annual spring dive surveys suggests that while the urchin population may be holding steady, at least in eastern Maine waters, it is not increasing significantly.
In 1993, when the Maine fishery peaked, harvesters landed 41.6 million pounds of sea urchins. A year later, landings still topped 38 million pounds, and in 1996, 25.7 million pounds of urchins crossed Maine’s docks. Then came the fall.
By 2003, landings were less than 6 million pounds, and for the past three years, landings were less than 2 million pounds – 1.5 million pounds last year.
“I don’t think anyone wants to go back to that giant mass of urchins,” an era when the price ranged from $.64 to $1.12 per pound, Russell said.
And while the survey shows that, at least in some areas, the urchin population has returned to about what it was 15 years ago, in general, “all the trend lines are down,” Russell said.
Harvesters and buyers remain divided over how to choose the days when fishing occurs.
Based on feedback from the Urchin Zone Council, the DMR sets separate early and late seasons, one for divers and another for draggers, in three fishing zones. Fishing is allowed only on the days designated on each season calendar.
Harvesters would prefer to have a fixed number of fishing days but be allowed to pick when to use them so they don’t have choose between fishing when the weather is potentially dangerous or losing a fishing day.
Dealers want to maintain a system in which the days are set in advance so that they can maintain orderly buying operations and a steady supply of Maine urchin roe to their customers.
The dispute seems to present an intractable issue that the DMR will have to resolve as it moves forward to draft a fishery management plan for sea urchins, but it may not be as serious as it first appears.
“Someone must have messed up because it’s just the way it ought to be,” Lubec dragger fisherman Danny Fitzsimmons told the council.